Let the refueling mission end

Addressing a question from the press regarding Japan's new government, Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell said Wednesday, "I think that with regards to the Indian Ocean refueling mission, we have greatly benefited from — as has the world, for that matter — from Japan's participation in those efforts, and we would very much encourage them to continue those efforts."

Otherwise Morrell repeated the standard Washington line about the difference between campaigning and governing in the hope that the Hatoyama government will just keep quiet and maintain the US-Japan relationship exactly as it was under the LDP.

Morrell left out what an unnamed Defense Department official said about the refueling mission immediately after the general election: Japan has played an important role, but whether to continue the mission or not is "the Japanese government's decision."

Fujisaki Ichiro, Japan's ambassador to the US, criticized Morrell for his remarks, saying, "Japan's international contribution is for Japan to decide independently."

Given the signals coming from the Obama administration over the course of the year, Morrell's remarks are anomalous: Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, explicitly said in Tokyo (mentioned in this post) that the administration would prefer financial and civil assistance for Kabul and Islamabad to JSDF personnel. I do think that the Obama administration would like to break with the Bush administration's emphasis on symbolic contributions that just happened to involve the JSDF and might therefore signal Japan's becoming "normal."

The Obama administration would be wise not to stand in the way of the Hatoyama government if it does indeed decide to let the refueling mission expire in January. Despite the insistence by Morrell and by the outgoing LDP foreign and defense ministers, the refueling mission has always been more important as a symbolic gesture than as a meaningful contribution to coalition activities on the ground in Afghanistan. Despite the arguments that were being made in 2007 when the DPJ used its upper house election victory to challenge the mission, it is difficult to believe that the multinational coaltion would not have found some way to manage in the absence of the MSDF contribution. I've long thought that the refueling mission had much more to do with the past than the future. By agreeing to send MSDF ships in support of a US-led war in Afghanistan mere weeks after 9/11, Koizumi Junichiro helped expiate the sins of 1990/1991, when despite Ozawa Ichiro's best efforts the Diet spent months debating sending personnel to support Operation Desert Storm only to defeat the Kaifu government's initiative, forcing Ozawa and then-Finance Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro to round up votes and money in what ended up being derided as "checkbook diplomacy." After a decade of foreign policy elite hand-wringing about Japan's failure in the Gulf crisis, the Koizumi government seized its first and best opportunity to wipe away bad memories of 1990. 2001 would have been more meaningful had it signaled more of a departure for Japan's security policy, but by the time the Iraq war rolled around Koizumi had a much harder time offering more than rhetorical support for the Bush administration (notice how long it took before Japan's unarmed contribution arrived in Samawah) — and the gas station in the Indian Ocean remained a gas station, meaning that the post-9/11 symbolic contribution meant that Japan was, as usual, taking the least risky course of action while receiving full rhetorical credit from Washington.

At this point, I am sure that the Obama administration would be perfectly happy with some Japanese "checkbook" diplomacy if it actually made some difference in the situation on the ground. There is far too little for the US to gain from opposing the Hatoyama government's ending the refueling mission, and much to lose, at least in terms of the atmosphere in the relationship. Ending a symbolic mission is a great way for the DPJ to show symbolically that the alliance will change under its stewardship, that it will not be bullied into doing whatever the US government "urges" Japan to do. Indeed, Morrell has perhaps guaranteed that the Hatoyama government will end the refueling mission.

The Obama administration ought to let the mission end, but begin talking immediately with Hatoyama about what his government plans to do instead to help the coalition succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The DPJ government is clearly going to approach the alliance differently. Washington can either throw a tantrum about the transition from the "deferential" LDP and warn about tossing "the good out with the dirty LDP bathwater" (Jim Hoagland), or it can wake up to the fact that the DPJ won a clear mandate to take Japan in a different direction — which includes changing the alliance. Seriously, does Jim Hoagland really think that it's the US government's job to tell the DPJ to be nicer to Japan's bureaucrats and the broken-down LDP? Did no one tell him that the occupation is long over?

I think one of President Obama's strengths is his ability to listen to those who disagree with him in good faith, a quality he displayed admirably on Wednesday. The DPJ has justifiable concerns about how the alliance has been conducted under the LDP, and I hope that the Obama administration listens. Naturally the DPJ should reciprocate this attitude, making its arguments in good faith and not succumbing to the temptation to make a straw man of US power.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: