Japan Debates Its Role in Iraq

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The old American saying "politics stops at the water's edge" has no equivalent in Japan, largely because until recently, the water was where everything stopped for a country whose foreign policy was disengaged, and which relied entirely on the U.S. for defense. But that's changed over the last several years, as a new generation of conservative politicians has pushed Japan to take a more active role abroad, including providing support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Also, the Japanese navy currently engages in refueling missions in the Indian Ocean to back up NATO-led antiterror operations in Afghanistan, while the air force ferries supplies and personnel from Kuwait to Baghdad and northern Iraq. That may not sound like much, but such operations would have been unthinkable to pacifist Japan as recently as a decade ago.

Japan's missions in support of U.S. operations abroad, however, are about to become a political football in Japan, with potentially damaging consequences for alliance. Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), announced on Aug. 7 that he might try to end the Japanese military's participation in Iraq, and possibly in Afghanistan as well — the law that authorizes the Indian Ocean mission is up for renewal this fall. Nor was this just idle talk: Thanks to the DPJ landslide victory in elections for the Japanese Diet on July 29 that gave it control of the legislature's Upper House for the first time ever, Ozawa is in the driver's seat. "U.S. President Bush started the war in Afghanistan with no concern for the United Nations and the international community," Ozawa told reporters in a press conference.

Ozawa was echoing the Japanese public's general unease with the U.S. war on terror — a poll in May found that only 22% of Japanese believed the military should support reconstruction activities in countries still in conflict, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But the politician Ozawa has in his sights isn't Bush; it's beleaguered Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has long pushed for greater participation by Japanese forces in the war on terror. After losing control of the Upper House in stunning fashion, Abe is under intense pressure to resign as Prime Minister, even from members of his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). By blocking the Japanese military from continuing in Iraq or the Afghanistan theater, Ozawa might deal a killing blow to Abe, or force his government to spend its dwindling political capital to keep the missions alive.

But Ozawa's game may be a dangerous one for his party, and for Japan as well. Though the DPJ is currently basking in the glow of electoral success, beneath the surface the opposition is deeply divided on a number of issues, none more so than Iraq and the role of the military. Though most of the party's newer representatives in the Upper House side with Ozawa on Iraq, there's a hawkish faction within the DPJ that supports military action abroad. Should Ozawa push too hard, he could see his fragile party fall apart. At the same time, the DPJ needs to prove to a still skeptical Japanese public that it's capable of governing, not just opposing. Playing politics with the nation's military isn't the best way to do that. "The Iraq issue is not just about the [military] presence in Iraq, but it's a symbolic diplomatic issue that tests the direction and the competency of the DPJ on foreign policy," says Etsushi Tanifuji, professor of political science at Tokyo's Waseda University.

Meanwhile the U.S. can only watch and worry as one of its most important regional allies endures political uncertainty. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer told reporters last week that he had never met Ozawa, the man who could well be Japan's next Prime Minister. The two finally met Wednesday, only after Ozawa had previously snubbed the ambassador — and he made clear that he would continue to oppose continuing Japan's participation in Afghanistan operations. Bush forged a solid relationship with Abe, and both men supported the idea of a Japan that takes a much more assertive role within the security alliance. But with Abe weakened, and Japan possibly turning inward, "we could be at the beginning of a redefinition of the U.S.-Japan alliance," says Tanifuji. Such a shift would not be too sharp — a deep consensus persists among politicians that Japan's fate remains tied to the U.S. But Washington may soon discover a Tokyo that's a little less eager to pitch in around the globe.

—With reporting by Toko Sekiguchi/Tokyo