By Brian Bremner
In the coalition of the willing, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been lauded by some for political courage in staying the course on Iraq. But at home, he has had a rough time -- pilloried in the House of Commons, treated to sneering interviews on the BBC, and called a "poodle" by has-been pop stars like George Michael. Chin up, Tony.
Yet not much has been reported on the fortitude and steadfast support for the war effort offered by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has been shifting to the right on national-security matters ever since September 11. Japan likely will side with the U.S., Britain, and Australia, even if France (and possibly China and Russia) veto any new resolution in the U.N. authorizing force against Iraq. Not that Japan hopes the showdown comes to war. But Koizumi this week was burning up the global phone lines trying to round up swing council member countries such as Pakistan, Chile, Guinea, Cameroon, and Mexico.
Contrast this approach with Japan's attitude during that last military clash in the Persian Gulf. Back then, it ended up writing a check -- a big one to be sure -- but only after getting roundly criticized for indifference. Thirteen years ago, the Japanese initially shrugged, citing their war-renouncing Constitution, and had to be mercilessly cajoled into support by President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker (see BW Online, 3/10/03, "Where This Bush Parts Ways with Dad"). Koizumi doesn't want that to happen again.
I think something deeper is going on, however. Koizumi and security-minded types in the ruling Liberal Democratic government have grasped that the relatively stable international system that has allowed Japan to prosper is in grave jeopardy. A world full of Islamic terrorist groups eager to obtain weapons of mass destruction to stage spectacular attacks on the U.S. and its friends -- and a handful of rogue states willing to accommodate them -- is a recipe for anarchy.
Japan also lives in a very dangerous neighborhood. North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, seems to want to rumble. He has fired up a nuclear reactor that could generate plutonium, test-fired a missile into the Sea of Japan, and buzzed a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane. Any day now, North Korea is expected to test-fire a Rodong ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. Such provocative actions could eventually embroil the Japanese archipelago in a conflict.
Right now, everybody -- the U.S., Japan, and South Korea -- insists that the way out of the North Korean crisis is diplomacy. That's probably a wise course until it's clear how things go in Iraq. But I tend to think of the war on terror and weapons proliferation as kind of a 10-act play. Afghanistan was the opener, Iraq comes next. But sooner or later, a major confrontation with Kim and his gang will come along -- and it's not going to be pretty.
The Japanese public, meanwhile, seems decidedly to the left of Koizumi. Opinion polls show public support against any war in Iraq in the 70% or so range. Tokyo has seen massive anti-war demonstrations in recent weeks. Some Japanese are even applying for Iraqi visas in hopes of getting to Baghdad in time to serve with the international human-shield brigade.
If Koizumi is worried, he's not showing it. And unlike Blair, whose most vocal critics are in his own party, the conservative LDP has no anti-war clique of any import inside it. At this point, ineffectual economic policies still pose a far greater danger to Koizumi's political future than do Iraq or North Korea.
Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, in an interview with the Yomiuri daily newspaper on Mar. 13, summed up one of the lingering fears among Japan's national-security cognoscenti: "If the international community takes half-baked action to strip Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, it faces the risk of failing to settle the issue of North Korea's nuclear-development program."
Well, I doubt the U.S. will settle for "half-baked action" -- more inspections, more delays -- on Iraq. That will be fairly clear in the weeks to come. But what to do about the guy with the funny hairdo in Pyongyang? Is diplomacy really going to stop this regime from throwing its nuclear-weapons program into warp speed -- or discreetly selling off weapons-grade uranium or plutonium to the highest bidder on the international black market?
It's a movie everyone has seen before. Agreements and promises have been made and ignored by North Korea going back to the first Bush Administration. Yet really tough diplomacy -- backed up by, say, a sea and air embargo of North Korea -- runs the risk of triggering a military attack on South Korea, where 37,000 U.S. troops remain stationed at the demilitarized zone.
Who knows how it'll all play out. But I fear that the risk of a military conflagration far more devastating in loss of life and property than either Afghanistan or Iraq is a real possibility in East Asia. The Pentagon has ordered two dozen B-1 and B-52 bombers from the U.S. to Guam, while Japan on Mar. 13 dispatched a warship into the Sea of Japan to monitor any imminent missile tests. The U.S. and Japan are also cooperating closely on research into possible missile defense systems that could be employed on ships to deter attacks from North Korea.
Tokyo officialdom has a clear vision of what the future has in store should the West and its key allies in Asia back down in confronting states and terrorist groups. That's why, despite considerable public opposition at home, Koizumi is fully behind U.S. efforts to play tough with the bad guys. The day may be coming when Japan sheds its image as a sidelines player in world military crises and starts looking out for its national security interests again.
Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online