Huffpost WorldPost
Steve Clemons Headshot

Obama Takes Down (the Wrong) Prime Minister

Posted: Updated:

hatoyama.jpg
(photo credit: Office of the Prime Minister, Government of Japan)

Japan Prime Minister and Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama, whose amazing electoral victory last year unseating the long dominant Liberal Democratic Party, has announced that he is stepping down from his position for failing to deliver on a key campaign promise to the Japanese people about moving the US Marine Futenma Air Station off of Okinawa.

I will be arriving in Tokyo tomorrow (on Thursday) and will be in Naha, Okinawa this next Monday.

Hatoyama could not withstand the pressure from Obama -- who gave Hatoyama the kind of icy treatment that the White House has also been trying to give Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The problem is Hatoyama wilted, and Netanyahu seems to be thriving.

I recently wrote a piece on the odd dynamic between President Obama and two different Prime Ministers -- Netanyahu and Hatoyama -- for the Kyodo News Service. It has already run in Japanese, but I post the entire English language version here:

Of Presidents & Prime Ministers in the Age of Obama
by Steve Clemons

Jan ken pon. Scissors cut paper. Paper covers Rock. Rock smashes scissors. There is an interesting drama playing out between several world leaders today that reminds of this game.

President Barack Obama seems to be smashing the political fortunes of Japan Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. On the other hand, Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been rebuffing and constraining Obama. Obama and China's Hu Jintao seem to be stalemated, playing jan ken pon over and over and over again.

"Defining challenges" for leaders and nations are those that represent the highest stakes wins and potential losses. The United States, for example, invested enormous blood and treasure in triggering change in Iraq and the broader Middle East and thus the Middle East today is a self-chosen defining challenge for the country. For Barack Obama, there were other defining challenges that he promised to stand by - including closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, "stopping" climate change, ending the war in Iraq, achieving Israel-Palestine peace and delivering the opportunity of universal health care coverage to American citizens.

Yukio Hatoyama also articulated his own defining challenges - including ending bureaucratic control of government and restoring genuine political leadership, opening up Japan's official records of secret deals done with the U.S., enhancing the quality of life for average Japanese citizens, closing the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa, improving Japan's position and sovereignty within the US-Japan Security Relationship andbuilding stronger relations with China among other challenges.

For Netanyahu, the defining challenge has been to simultaneously protect Israel's security interests and expansion in the Occupied Territories while rallying support to thwart Iran's nuclear pretensions. For Hu Jintao, it has been to incrementally increase China's global economic and geostrategic position while maintaining high economic growth and not destabilizing the country or creating new costly burdens and responsibilities for China.

The interactions between these leaders show how power is deployed and measured, created and destroyed. Netanyahu and Hu Jintao have played their hands best. Obama has been beaten, constrained, but still has global leverage, and Yukio Hatoyama seems to be on the constantly losing end of jan ken pon.

While the United States and China have been testing each other from the earliest days of the Obama White House, with the relationship moving from global economic crisis-focused harmony to tensions recently over the Dalai Lama, Taiwan arms sales, and how to deal with Iran, fundamentally the US and China have moved into a de facto G2 arrangement that doesn't necessarily mean that the US and China run the world but does mean that nearly every major global challenge requires consultation and policy coordination between these two global behemoths. China can veto America's global efforts and the US can veto China's. So far, there is general stalemate - jan ken pon, jan ken pon - as they sort out the realities of emerging Chinese power in an international system over which the US is not willing to forfeit control.

Obama and Hu Jintao are for the moment, tied - which historically speaking, represents a substantial moving up in the ranks for China and diminished power for the U.S.

When it comes to US-Israel relations, Barack Obama started out strong, appointed distinguished former US Senator and Northern Ireland peacemaker George Mitchell to go to work on achieving the same between Israelis and Palestinians, and indicated that Arab states would kick in some normalization-tilting gestures with Israel if Israel would cease all settlement expansion.

Obama's equation for moving Middle East peace forward was just too quaint and simple. Even though Israel is completely dependent on American security guarantees and aid and is genuinely a client state of the United States, the pugnacious prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, flamboyantly rebuffed Obama's call to stop settlements. Obama, with some twisting and modification of his position, has essentially forfeited the match to Netanyahu.

During the early part of the John F. Kennedy administration, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev beat Kennedy in similar challenges and began to doubt Kennedy's resolve and strategic temperament - leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, Netanyahu has become the Khrushchev of the Obama administration - and one wonders if a crisis lies ahead in which Obama will have to reassert his primacy lest the world think that Israel runs the United States and the Obama presidency.

But while the Israeli Prime Minister is beating Obama, Obama is clearly smashing the legacy and political position of Japan Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Hatoyama is conceding on a key campaign promise to move Futenma Marine Air Station off of the heavily US-base covered island of Okinawa. Now, some minor functions of Futenma will be transferred off island, but the bulk of the facility will simply be moved to another section of Okinawa.

Barack Obama put huge pressure on Hatoyama, asking him "Can I trust you?" He has maintained an icy posture towards Hatoyama, hardly communicating with him or agreeing to meetings - making the Prime Minister "lose face." Contrasting this with the invitation to former Prime Minister Taro Aso to be the first official head of government to visit the White House and Secetary of State Hillary Clinton's decision to make Tokyo her first foreign destination, one can see that while America seems unable to muster pressure to achieve a "win" with Israel, it is more than able to do so with the leader of a rich nation of 128 million people.

Hatoyama may survive this rebuke of the United States and this policy reversal that has made him appear weak and indecisive before Japan's citizens, but Obama has been unfair in this standoff with Japan's prime minister.

Obama himself promised to close Guantanamo Bay within one year of his presidency. This was a major commitment, and the administration failed to achieve it. But the US is not a parliamentary democracy where executive leadership can rise and fall over a single issue at any time. Presidents get a time period to stack up their wins and their losses so that when re-election comes around, they are measured on a combination of issues. But Hatoyama's government could fall over just this issue - and Obama did little to help the new Prime Minister stack up some wins with the US and the international system before crushing him on Futenma.

Japan, despite all of its considerable strengths and what could have been exciting, visionary new leadership from Hatoyama and his Democratic Party colleagues, is still a vassal of the United States - whereas the United States appears more and more a vassal of Israel's interest - and on China, we'll just have to wait and see how history tilts.

-- Steve Clemons directs the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note