Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Saving Her Aso

Prime Minister Taro Aso who has less than a 10 percent approval rating is coming to Washington February 24th. What!? Conventional wisdom, “mature reflection,” in Washington calmly notes that “that of course the Prime Minister of Japan (regardless of who or his poll numbers) WILL be invited...invited early...to meet the new President of the United States. The primacy of the alliance...political, economic, strategic at ALL levels... mandates nothing less.”

What nonsense. With a cautious Asia team in place and second string Armitage players soon to arrive, the Obama Administration is bending over backwards to assure official Japan that nothing will change. And nothing has. Americans still cave in to incessant Japanese whining. Japan remain the “cornerstone” of our Asia policy.

Although Administration officials say (privately) that they could no longer stall on a meeting with Aso, the invitation to the White House is read as a transparent effort to rescue the Aso Administration and the LDP. That probably means that the Obama Administration prefers Aso over opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa. There is too much fear among Washington’s Japan managers of an untested opposition party DPJ led government in Tokyo. They see Ozawa as a bigger threat to US-Japan relations than an ineffectual LDP government.

I think that the invitation will ultimately be a mistake. This show of support for a failing regime undermines the goodwill that Obama has regenerated with the Japanese people. In some ways, Obama’s election represents a repudiation of the corrupt and jingoistic politics as practiced by the LDP. The Japanese dismiss Aso and the LDP for a good reason. Now they have a new reason to dismiss the US.

Ozawa was right to avoid meeting with Secretary Clinton. His election strategy is to distance himself from anything LDP and that includes clearly the United States. Before the Aso invitation, there was some ambiguity as to how the Obama Administration felt. Now there is none.

Clinton’s meeting with him was mere show to assuage Washington that they “reached out.” Ozawa correctly judged that the new White House was no more imaginative with the US-Japan relationship than that of the old one. Clinton’s too-long stay in Tokyo pandering to the usual mystic Japanese cultural icons—the Meiji Shrine, the Empress, the Abductees families—simply reinforced that conclusion.

One can make the argument that Japan is not in a situation favorable to changing the prime minister or to having an election. But that is an admission that Japan is not a stable democracy. And it is never a good idea to alienate an increasingly popular opposition party. However, the whole effort by Aso to force a meeting may backfire.

The February 24 fly-in might accentuate the contrast between the world's most vigorous president and the unpopular empty-headed and empty-handed prime minister. Frankly, the Aso meeting is a mere pause in a very busy day for a President who will spend his evening outling his economic agenda to a rare joint session of Congress. It is hard to see how Aso's visit is helpful to anyone.

1 comment:

  1. I think that you have hit the nail on the head. Gavan McCormack has an article at Japan Focus---Hillary in Japan: The Enforcer http://japanfocus.org/_Gavan_McCormack-Hillary_in_Japan___The_Enforcer---which lends further support to the idea that the Obama Administration will continue to back Aso and the LDP over the DPJ.

    As usual with the US and Japan, nothing of significance will change until backs are against the wall and disaster is imminent.


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