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Devin Stewart Headshot

Obama Did Not "Take Down" Hatoyama

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Last night I was interviewed by Jim Swanson of Progressive News Radio. We talked about U.S.-Japan relations after Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama stepped down from office last week, and about what we might expect under the new Naoto Kan administration. You can listen to our conversation here.

One of the topics we covered during the interview was a narrative that appeared in several publications immediately after Hatoyama's resignation advancing the notion that somehow U.S. President Obama was responsible for Hatoyama's political demise. Never mind the distasteful samurai references to Hatoyama "falling on his sword" and committing "ritual suicide." Blaming Obama for Hatoyama's fall not only ignores the facts, it is patronizing to Japan.

The argument I take issue with essentially says the following: The United States had developed a cozy relationship with the Liberal Democratic Party during that party's decades of nearly uninterrupted rule in Japan. After the Democratic Party of Japan defeated the LDP in the August 2009 general election, the U.S. government got nervous that it no longer had a vassal in East Asia that would obey U.S. wishes and advance U.S. policy—even though the DPJ and the Obama Administration shared many philosophical views and the U.S. and Japan share many core security interests. Hatoyama's move to renegotiate an agreement that the United States and Japan had made in 2006 over the relocation of a U.S. marine base in Okinawa convinced Obama, the argument goes, to greet Hatoyama in international forums with an "icy posture," causing Obama to "lose face," eventually forcing the Japanese leader to resign. (Variations of this argument can be found in the Huffington Post, the New York Times, Slate magazine, Foreign Policy in Focus, and elsewhere.)

If only it were that easy. Wouldn't it be nice if President Obama were able to take down leaders of countries just by being "icy" toward them? Imagine the power. The United States could simply shape international politics through sheer will. If Obama had such supernatural powers, wouldn't he use them to eliminate troublesome figures like Kim Jong Il instead of allies like Japan? Perhaps like any superhero he must keep them secret to avoid unintended consequences. But that is also part of the Obama-is-to-blame narrative: The United States should be careful when using its power for it may face unnamed "consequences." At least this whole notion dispels the dubious "America in decline" school of thought.

The blame-Obama narrative also assumes no independent agency in Japan and therefore sounds U.S.-centric, narcissistic, and uninformed about what has actually been happening in Japan over the past eight months. Since the day Hatoyama came into office Japanese people have poked fun at the politician, calling him an "alien," "a professor," a "momma's boy," and a "pigeon"—a play off his name.

Meanwhile, Hatoyama was wishy-washy on other things, including pocketbook issues like highway tolls and cash subsidies for families with children. Other money problems included Hatoyama's own campaign funds scandal and a ballooning budget deficit. Hatoyama's failed attempt to renegotiate the relocation of the Okinawa marine base demonstrated to Japanese voters that he lacked leadership skills and failed to appreciate Japan's security needs. It is understandable that Hatoyama would want to reopen the Okinawa base issue, but I believe he could have done so with much more tact, leaving himself room to maneuver in case things didn't look good. At the least, he should have sought a viable political alternative domestically before announcing to his ally that the 2006 agreement was off. As Obama's Asia advisor Jeffrey Bader put it this week at a meeting in Washington:

Secretary Gates visited Japan in October and made clear that the FRF (Futenma Relocation Framework) remained the best option, that walking away from it would damage the alliance. There was criticism of Secretary Gates' so-called "confrontational" approach. In fact, someone on the Japanese side chose to leak virtually the entire transcript of Gates' first meeting with FM Okada to Kyodo News, giving the appearance that Gates was seeking a public confrontation when he was in fact speaking frankly in a private meeting.

As we all know, PM Hatoyama decided in December Japan would not implement the FRF as agreed upon. He said Japan would reach agreement with us on a new proposal by the end of May and made clear his preference was to relocate the MCAS Futenma off Okinawa--if not off Japan altogether.

We thought this was a mistake, for various reasons. We made clear our disagreement to the Japanese government. At the same time, we did not reject Hatoyama's proposal to talk. We would have preferred to stay with the option so arduously negotiated over 15 years, and continued to say it was the "best" option, but we did not insist that it was the "only" option. Rather, we showed respect and understanding of the politics of Japan and the needs of the new government. We were frankly skeptical that delay would produce more positive results. But, that is how allies should treat each other, particularly in the "alliance of equals" about which Hatoyama spoke and which President Obama has accepted.

Hatoyama's mishandling of Japan's relationship with the United States and his flip-flopping on domestic issues precipitated a steady decline in his administration's public support from percentages in the 70s to below 20 at the end of his time in office. People I interviewed in Japan were predicting Hatoyama's undoing and Naoto Kan's ascent as early as November 2009, just a couple of months into Hatoyama's term.

The Japanese people's attitude toward security is paradoxical. Most Japanese understand that the alliance is important for the security of Japan (America and President Obama have been quite popular in Japan since Obama took office). Many Japanese want a more independent foreign policy but they are also reluctant to devote more funding to making that a reality given the country's extremely high levels of government debt. Making things worse, Japan is facing a declining population and is unlikely to open its borders to large numbers of immigrants. So the default position is to rely to a large degree on the United States, a proven, trustworthy ally.

On top of that, the blame-Obama sound bite is mostly an English press phenomenon, and has little resonance with the Japanese media. Foreign pressure (gaiatsu) can have a role in advancing change in Japan, but it needs a domestic constituency for it to actually work. The Japanese have been expecting Hatoyama's resignation for months given his poor performance in office. As a democracy, Japan was able to move on to a more promising leader. To blame foreign leaders for Hatoyama's fall would belittle Japanese democracy.