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Koizumi on Iraq: Silence Isn't an Option

By Brian Bremner Washington has heard from German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, assorted European pundits, Russia, China, and the entire Arab world on the notion of a regime change by military invasion of Iraq. It goes something like this: Yes, we think Saddam Hussein is pretty close to a psychopath too. But you'll be going way off the reservation if you attack without more credible proof that Saddam has really nasty stuff that will do grievous harm to the world.

The international debate has been somewhat deafening in capitals across the world in recent days. But here in Tokyo, you get the sense that the ruling coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, hopes this whole Iraq thing will just go away. With so much at stake for Japan, you'd think its diplomats might have a thought or two on the subject. After all, it imports virtually all of its oil from the Middle East, has many friends in that part of the world, and actually knows what it's like to be attacked by nuclear weapons.

RUNNING OUT OF TIME. Of course, Japan's leaders do have plenty of thoughts, but they're maintaining radio silence both with Washington and their own public on what the country will do when the fateful day comes that America attacks Iraq and then leans on Japan for public support and money. That approach will have to change -- and sooner rather than later. The opening acts of this drama are already being foreshadowed. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was in Tokyo the last week of August, meeting with Koizumi, top coalition party officials, and Japan's Defense Agency Director General Gen Nakatani.

Armitage stayed on message with the current Bush line that hey, relax, nothing has been decided about Iraq (see BW Online, 8/29/02, "Behind the Go-Stop-Go on Iraq"). Still, he is said to have urged Japan to think of ways to contribute should Bush's stance change. The subject is sure to come up again when Koizumi holds talks with Bush after attending memorial services for the one-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York.

Indeed, the day is drawing near when Japan will have to make a very tough diplomatic call, the kind it loathes to do unless its back is pinned against the wall. And Koizumi, whose approval rating fell to 45.7% in July, thanks to his poor record on economic reforms, is really going to get a public shellacking if he doesn't handle this Iraq decision just right.

UNCONVINCED PUBLIC. Japan certainly doesn't want a reprise of the international scorn it received during the last Gulf War. Back then, Tokyo dithered when the American-led coalition moved against Iraq, though it did write an $11 billion check to help fund Desert Storm. This time, though, most of the world, at least right now, is tilting against the U.S. And, I suspect, so is much of Japan's Arabist-leaning Foreign Ministry and a general public that's unconvinced that a diversion into Iraq is what the country signed on for in this war against terrorism.

Make no mistake: Japan by and large was deeply sympathetic to what the U.S. endured on September 11 in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. And here, there wasn't unfettered anti-Americanism when Washington retaliated against the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Koizumi quickly won support for Japan to provide noncombat support in the Arabian Sea, which is likely to continue beyond a Nov. 19 pullout date.

But clearly the mood has changed in Japan. America's image of a swaggering superpower that blithely ignores the environment, world poverty, and sends mixed messages about its commitment to democracy and free trade is a lot stronger these days than most Americans think -- even in an ally like Japan. As a security hawk who would like Japan to play a more assertive role in defending its national security interests, Koizumi is a bit off-key with the current public mood.

ANTI-U.S. SCREED. Consider the weird juxtaposition of the 57th anniversary ceremony of the bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6. One can only imagine what went through Koizumi's mind as Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba decided to use the occasion to launch a screed against the U.S. and suggest that Bush didn't really grasp the destructive impact of nuclear weapons on mankind. "The U.S. government does not have the right to force Pax Americana on the rest of the world and to determine the fate of the world," he intoned.

So here's the dilemma for Koizumi: The U.S. is a trusted ally. But it will become something of an international pariah, at least for a while, if it chooses to bust up Iraq and take out Saddam. The U.S. won't have the cover of an international coalition this time around. Washington will probably get Britain's tepid support, and it will really pressure Japan to get on board and maybe even subsidize the cost of this military campaign. Unfortunately, Koizumi hasn't bothered to tell the Japanese public what he thinks about any of this.

That means he runs the risk of a real public backlash if he sides with the U.S. without spelling out why he thinks it's in Japan's national interest. He could also do the world a favor by using Japan's own experience with war and weapons of mass destruction to spell out the risks of unchecked global terrorism.

INSULTING COMPARISON. And he might privately get a message to Vice-President Dick Cheney to stop comparing the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor with September 11 or another terrorist attack on U.S. soil with weapons of mass destruction, as he did in a hawkish speech in late August. Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack aimed at America's naval assets in the Pacific. It killed a lot people, but it wasn't aimed at civilians. This is insulting to the Japanese and doesn't help make the U.S. case for getting rid of the demented one in Iraq.

Chances are the world will get a better idea of what Koizumi thinks when he gives a speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 13. In any event, Koizumi is running out of time to keep his thoughts to himself. Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

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