Stumbling into Tragedy
SNA (Tokyo) — The group sometimes called the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) murdered freelance journalist Kenji Goto and his friend Haruna Yukawa. The various messages that ISIL sent through Goto’s voice to the world demonstrate clearly that they are listening to the debates in the world’s media, and we therefore can understand that ISIL murdered Mr. Goto in full knowledge of the humanitarian nature of his work and the fact that he personally bore no enmity toward Muslims or their causes. For the hate-filled leaders of ISIL, the political objective of embarrassing the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took priority over preserving the life of an innocent—indeed heroic—man.
Through this act and others like it, ISIL has revealed itself to be not simply the enemy of the Abe government and the so-called Western Powers, but also the enemy of Islam and of humanity itself.
But leaving aside the unquestionable monstrousness of ISIL, the Japanese hostage crisis of late January 2015 also revealed, in unmistakeable form, the diplomatic weakness and the flawed international strategy of the Shinzo Abe government.
Why did Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tour through Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine at all? Was there really a need for this international tour at this particular time?
When put in those terms, the answer is clearly that there was no pressing need for Abe to venture into the region at this time. Since his return to power in December 2012, this prime minister has travelled to more overseas destinations than any of his predecessors. The primary purpose would seem to be to demonstrate Abe’s contention that “Japan is back” and to raise his country’s international profile. It is just one dimension of Shinzo Abe’s broader campaign to heighten Japan’s international prestige.
Japan has a significant national interest in the flow of Persian Gulf oil, and at times in the past—such as the 1973 Oil Shock—this has been linked directly to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the collapse in Arab solidarity and in the meaningfulness of OPEC since the 1980s has largely erased that link, so one can say that Japan’s direct national interests in the Arab-Israeli issue at this point are relatively weak. At any rate, Japan’s role is necessarily going to be a very minor one in light of all the other parties’ more profound stakes in these matters.
So we can start by noting that it was not only troubled adventurer Haruna Yukawa who had no real business being out there, but it was also Shinzo Abe who took unnecessary risks by venturing into the region.
But Abe’s miscalculation was not merely to go there at this time, but much worse to explicitly provoke ISIL (and many others) by the things he said while touring in the region.
His declarations while in Cairo were clearly ill-advised.
In his January 17 speech to the Japan-Egypt Business Committee, Abe declared, “We are also going to support Turkey and Lebanon. All that we shall do to help curb the threat ISIL poses. I will pledge assistance of a total of about 200 million US dollars for those countries contending with ISIL, to help build their human capacities, infrastructure, and so on.”
We now know, thanks to an excellent report by Nobuhiro Kato of Reuters, that a meeting of Japan’s National Security Council took place on the eve of Abe’s trip to Egypt. No one, it is said, mentioned the fact that Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto were being held captive by ISIL, but, the Reuters report states, “Officials involved in preparations for Abe’s agenda understood that by naming Islamic State as a threat during a visit to Egypt, Abe was taking a risk. His speech before a Cairo business group was intended to drive home the message that Japan was a reliable partner for the region, and allies like the United States.”
This account nails it—not only do we know that Abe quite consciously took a risk in explicitly naming ISIL as the target of Japan’s new aid package, but we also understand that his motive in doing so was to please Washington policymakers and to assert Japan’s regional significance.
Naturally, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was quite eager to reject any linkage after the hostage crisis began: “It is not at all appropriate to link this atrocious and contemptible act of terrorism with the prime minister’s visit,” he declared to reporters on January 27. But the public evidence contradicts Suga’s assertion.
Less remarked upon has been the even more troubling things that Prime Minister Abe said while in Cairo.
On the day following his speech to Egyptian businesspeople, Abe expressed his solidarity with Cairo’s “anti-terrorism” policies in the leaders’ joint statement: “Both sides acknowledged the serious scourge of terrorism and underlined its growing threat to stability worldwide. They strongly condemn all forms of terrorism, and call upon all states to actively and effectively confront all terrorist organizations without exceptions. Both sides confirmed their intention to cooperate in efforts to counter extremism.”
And the Japanese leader went even further with the statement: “Prime Minister Abe highly appreciated Egypt’s enormous efforts in combating terrorism.”
While these statements may not at first glance seem particularly alarming, the context is crucial. Egypt is now run by a harsh military dictatorship which has just completed the process of crushing a popular democratic movement—anyone remember the so-called “Arab Spring”?
The Egyptian regime has even jailed professional journalists from Al-Jazeera on farcical charges of colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood—a feat the journalists supposedly accomplished by simply reporting what the Egyptian government was doing and what the opposition thought about it.
Prime Minister Abe seems to have given little or no consideration to how a repressive military regime might view the concept of “terrorism” and how that view might be different from that of a democratic state. Was the jailing of journalists part of the “enormous efforts in combating terrorism” that Abe was praising?
His mistake in Israel was similar. Not just ISIL, but most of the Islamic world views Israel with deep antagonism over the Jewish state’s violent colonization efforts in the eastern Mediterranean, stretching over a period of decades. Political responsibility for Israeli excesses belongs—after the Israelis themselves—very much in the camp of Japan’s ally, the United States, which has thrown the full weight of its power behind the Israeli cause since at least the 1970s, and thus terribly exacerbated the massively destabilizing and seemingly-interminable Arab-Israeli conflict.
It was in this same Israel, then, that Prime Minister Abe proudly announced on January 19th the goal of “promoting exchanges between the defense establishments of Japan and Israel.”
Since much of the Israeli “defense establishment” is still engaged in a harsh military occupation of Palestinian land, where does this place Japanese policy in the region?
Of course, Prime Minister Abe was still in Israel on January 20 when the hostage crisis broke into the headlines; when the first video images of the kneeling Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto hit the global news networks.
In what must certainly go down as one of the most boneheaded decisions in the history of Japanese postwar diplomacy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made his first appeal for the release of the two hostages on Israeli soil, standing right next to the Israeli national flag. It’s nearly unbelievable that no one on the Japanese leader’s staff pointed out to him how counterproductive and provocative it would be to visually and symbolically align himself with Israel as he ostensibly spoke to the ISIL hostage-takers.
We may never know the answer to the key question of whether or not there was ever any chance that ISIL would be willing to release Kenji Goto alive. Some people will argue, perfectly plausibly, that he was going to be murdered no matter what Abe did. Perhaps that is true. But if one assumes that there were certain conditions that might have induced ISIL to turn over Goto, then it must be said that Prime Minister Abe’s public statements and behavior seemed more calculated to ensuring that Goto got killed than to getting him released. Everything Abe said during the crisis would have been seen as antagonistic and provocative to ISIL.
His stance is not difficult to explain, because Prime Minister Abe has been nothing if not consistent. Even when he was ostensibly sending a message to ISIL demanding release of the hostages, the real audience he had in mind was Washington. Once again his priority was to demonstrate Japan’s “responsible” behavior as a great power and as a reliable ally of the United States.
He needed to tone it down a bit so as not to offend the much softer, humanitarian sensibilities of the average Japanese citizen, but national prestige and international honor was very much at the forefront of his mind in all that he did. No doubt he would have preferred that Goto lived, but that was never his top priority.
Before, during, and after the execution of the two Japanese hostages by ISIL, Prime Minister Abe has also been quite consistent in attempting to exploit the tragic situation to advance his lifetime goal of busting the constitutional restrictions on the deployment of Japanese military forces abroad. It’s the common thread that runs through all of the tactical arguments he has made. No matter what the international problem, Abe’s answer is likely to be the assertion that things would be much better if only the Self-Defense Forces weren’t barred from direct participation in international military operations.
From his ideological perspective, Article Nine of the Constitution is an unjust humiliation forced upon the Japanese nation that he is utterly determined to rectify. The defense restrictions that it imposes on the state are the biggest threat to Japan’s security, he believes.
From Abe’s view, then, unexpected events such as the recent hostage crisis may not be entirely unwelcome if they help to “wake up” the Japanese people to the very real threats that exist in the world. Underlying his view is the assumption that one day Japan and China will engage in a military clash, and that Tokyo needs to be ready for that “inevitable” confrontation. This cynical view has been widespread among Japanese conservatives and rightists for a long time.
But leaving that peculiar ideology aside, the broader failure of Japanese diplomacy has been its inability to recognize that while the US-Japan Alliance serves Japanese interests reasonably well in East Asia, it is almost entirely a negative factor when applied to other regions of the world, especially in Islamic West Asia and North Africa.
In the 1970s, Japanese authorities wisely developed a foreign policy that was largely independent of the United States in terms of their interactions with the Arab countries and Iran. Ultimately, however, American pressures collapsed the independent Japanese policy, with the 1991 Gulf War serving as the key turning point.
Since the Gulf War, the US “alliance managers” have foisted upon a Japan the vision of a “global alliance” between Japan and the United States.
From the point of view of the American government, it could only be a good thing to have Japan’s financial and diplomatic support around the world, but how exactly this extension of the alliance to the rest of the world is really in Japan’s interest has never been particularly well explained.
The reality—as was amply demonstrated by both George W. Bush’s aggression against Iraq in 2003 as well as the recent tragic deaths of Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto—is that the US alliance compromises Japan’s moral stature and endangers Japanese citizens when it is applied to regions such as West Asia, where the record of US foreign policy is both dark and dirty.
In other words, a much wiser foreign policy for Japan would be to continue to value the US alliance, but also to insist that it only operates in the geographical area immediately surrounding Japan. That’s not everything that Washington wants, but it is all that Japan needs—and the Americans could certainly learn to live with it.
Such an approach would be far better than watching innocent Japanese continue to fall victim to faraway conflicts that they hardly understand. The choice should be made to stop this stumbling into tragedy.
Michael Penn is the President of the Shingetsu News Agency