Assessing Japan's Iraq Deployment

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

Foreign policy is a matter of making choices that are judged to offer the best chance of serving the national interest given a realistic assessment of the situation at hand. From this perspective, Prime Minister Koizumi's decision to send the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq should be seen as a choice rooted in realism. Political leaders who oppose this decision have an obligation to make a persuasive case for how another policy, not involving the dispatch of the SDF, would better serve the national interest than the policy adopted by the government. The opposition has not made that case. It has criticized the government without offering an alternative.

Having said that, Prime Minister Koizumi's explanation why Japan should send armed forces to Iraq is nonetheless somewhat puzzling. It is one thing to refer to the importance of Japan's relations with the United States in justifying a decision to go forward with the Iraq deployment, but quite another to go to the lengths Koizumi has gone to to defend President Bush's decision to launch a preemptive strike against Iraq. The majority of the American public does not buy the Administration's story of why war was necessary. No weapons of mass destruction have been found, and now David Kay, who headed the CIA team looking for these weapons, is saying that the intelligence was wrong to begin with and that there probably are no WMD to be found. There never was convincing evidence of an Iraq tie to al-Qaida. Iraq is a more important base for terrorist activities now than it ever was under the Saddam Hussein regime.

The Bush Administration is no doubt grateful to Koizumi for his unstinting support. But a Japanese perception that their government's foreign policy is so dictated by the imperatives of Japan's alliance with the United States that Japan does pretty much what Washington tells it to do easily provokes anti-American sentiment. Yet Koizumi's enthusiasm for backing Bush's decision to go to war against Iraq creates precisely that impression.

There is a case that can be made for sending the SDF to Iraq for humanitarian assistance and to aid in the reconstruction of the country which does not require putting it in terms of defending Bush's decision to use force to bring about regime change in Iraq. The reality today is that getting Iraq back on its feet after the end of the Saddam Hussein reign of terror is in the interests of the whole world including Japan. The great majority of Americans who strongly criticize President Bush for his Iraq policy oppose a withdrawal of American troops. Democratic Party leaders argue that the U.S. should get other countries and the United Nations to take greater responsibilities in Iraq and not that the United States should cut and run. Americans, and not just those who support President Bush, who want to see more participation by other nations, welcome Prime Minister Koizumi's decision to send troops to Iraq.

According to Japanese public opinion polls, support for the Iraq deployment is increasing. But this does not appear to be because of public enthusiasm for the idea that it is necessary to do so to support Japan's relations with the U.S. Rather there seems to be growing Japanese public support for the view that Japan has a useful international contribution to make by helping the Iraqi people recover from a desperate situation. There is an element of idealism and empathy underlying public support for sending the SDF to Iraq. It is puzzling why Prime Minister Koizumi does not make more of this in his public statements.

There is a different reason why some people are apprehensive about sending the SDF to Iraq. That reason is that there are more than a few politicians among the supporters of this decision who see it not as an example of how Japan can make an important contribution to the international community, but rather as a first step in a process of getting the Japanese over their post-war allergy to the use of military force.

Postwar Japan has shown that it is possible for a nation to become a great economic power without taking on the role of a great military power. There is no doubt that the post-Cold War, post-9.11 world requires adjustments in Japanese foreign policy. However, among supporters of the Iraq deployment, there are those whose enthusiasm derives not from a belief that Japan is making a realistic adjustment in its post-war diplomacy but from the hope that finally Japan is breaking away from a foreign policy stance of "peace diplomacy" that they consider to be a humiliation rather than something to be viewed with pride.

The Iraq deployment has intensified the movement for revision of the Constitution. The LDP plans to come up with its draft for constitutional revision next year and the DPJ is aiming at doing the same in 2006. It is hard to believe that either of them will be able to arrive at a consensus within this time frame for how to change the constitution. It is even more difficult to imagine that a proposal for revision is going to be able to secure the support of two-thirds of all members of the Diet anytime soon. The argument over how to revise the constitution can be of great significance if it leads to a reasoned debate about Japan's foreign policy options and vision for the future. But constitutional revision itself is probably many years away.

At a time when Japan is being compelled to adjust its foreign policy to the world's new realities, political leaders who are able to articulate a direction and vision for Japan's future course are needed more than ever. This burden falls especially heavily on the Democratic Party's leadership. Leaders who want to take power away from those who are currently steering the ship of state have to do more than simply criticize the government or issue manifestos filled with mostly empty cliches. They have to explain why the policies they would adopt would better serve the national interest than the policies Prime Minister Koizumi is pursuing. So far there is no evidence that they are rising to meet this challenge.

>> Original text in Japanese

* The original article appeared in "Jidai o yomu" column, Tokyo Shimbun, February 8, 2004.

February 8, 2004 Tokyo Shimbun

February 20, 2004

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