Professor Jeff Kingston has produced a highly readable essay on the Prime Minister's moves last week to promote his security agenda. The effort has been multi-pronged, with thrusts on constitutional revision, expansion of the geographic area covered by self-defense, expansion of the definition of self-defense to include damage to the Japanese economy and establishment of a special forces rescue unit. Coming on the heels of what was a diplomatic and humanitarian failure -- everybody died and a vengeful bombing campaign erupted -- Abe-san's full out run for military solutions to international political problems, seems a bit...unseemly. (Link)
Kingston refers to this behavior as swinging for the fences. To be sure, Abe and Company do have incentives to propose way too much in the knowledge that in the back-and-forth of domestic politics ambitious proposals are whittled down to something the country's editorialists can disagree upon.
However, Abe and Co. have a another important reason to overreach now: Abe is the Anti-Koizumi.
Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichiro could rely upon what mystified commentators called the Koizumi Magic. On seemingly any issue, Koizumi could transform, through reasoned argument, adamantine will, and an ineffable something, what was a Majority Against into a Majority For. (Archive)
Abe The Second Coming has been demonstrating a consistent and astonishing capacity to do the opposite. On any and every marquee policy proposal Abe and his colleagues drive voter support into the ground -- while leaving the Cabinet's popularity unchanged. The more Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide talk about a policy change, the lower the level of voter support, at least as measured by public opinion polls. One would think that out of pure luck Abe and Co. would chance upon some issue where the stance taken by the Abe government would increase in popularity over time.
No such luck.
So Abe must seek the maximum at the outset, at the risk of appearing to be far ahead of the public mood, out of the practical realization that as he tries to explain what he wants to he will erode whatever confidence the public may have in the wisdom of what he is proposing.
A corollary to the above is that Abe and his team members have a strong incentive to cut off debate at what seems ta midpoint and before the discussion has moved to a deeper level. If Abe is to get anything done, he has to cut his losses and move on -- at the outset.
Which will one day make for a rather confusing and unsatisfying historical record.
As for Kingston's conversation with Richard Samuels, Dr. Samuels (full disclosure: Dr. Samuels is a friend) gives his own paradigms short shrift. In addition to the advocates of rapid expansion of Japan's security program and the advocates of a retreat to first principles of Japanese post-1945 security policy mentioned in the Kingston essay, a full Samuels treatment would fine a third group arguing that even though the attempts to negotiate a hostage release ended up in failure, such negotiations have ended up in failure for every national government other than that of Turkey -- and one shudders to think what the Turks gave up to secure their hostages.
Japan, according to this view, did no worse or better than anyone else. Japan is therefor not on the wrong path in terms of its security policy development. The government and the people should not panic.
Samuels explores this tripartite division of responses to threat and catastrophe in his most recent book 3.11 Disaster and Change in Japan. Amaterasu willing, 3.11 could see the light of day in a Japanese language edition sometime soon.
The key takeaway -- and Samuels hammers away at this in 3.11 and in his public appearances -- is that almost no one comes away from these experiences with his/her assumptions shaken. Those who wanted to accelerate policy change and/or switch Japan's policy direction will find the government's inability to save Yukawa and Goto demonstrates the rightness of their views. Those who advocated steady-as-we-go, progressive, "normalizing" policies will downplay the failure and declare the maintenance of a cool, cerebral demeanor paramount. Those who have disliked the expansion and transformation of Japan's security behavior, advocating either a slowdown or more often a reversal of the processes of the last three decades, will see Yukawa's and Goto's deaths as justifying their caution and skepticism.
Some readers may find Kingston's tone and vocabulary overblown. Consider them responses to the extraordinary gall displayed by certain members of the Japanese foreign policy commentariat who seen it appropriate to condemn/decry the sharp criticism of the Abe government. The calls for national unity and support of the Abe government made by these person who shall remain nameless would fall on more receptive ears if residents of this blessed land could forget the vicious, opportunistic and avaricious attacks showered upon the Kan government in the days immediately following the triple disaster of 3.11, even as the country was reeling from the disruption caused by the earthquake, tsunami and an unfolding massive nuclear accident.
No solidarity then, friends, means no solidarity now -- and no rhetorical restraint now either.