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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (February 17, 2003)

Koizumi Haunted by Blair's Iraq Dilemma

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has recently come under heavy fire for his opaque policy on the looming Iraq crisis. Unlike U.S. ally Britain, Japan has not yet officially made clear whether it will support the anticipated U.S. attack on Iraq. In a recent heated debate with Naoto Kan, leader of the main opposition party, the Prime Minister persistently dodged giving any kind of decisive policy stance. This led Mr. Kan to mock Koizumi for "having no opinion" on the Iraq crisis at a time when other world leaders have already adopted clear positions. Mr. Kan taunted "If you are on the side of the U.S.A., why don't you say so clearly?" Koizumi again ducked the issue, only commenting that Iraq must comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions. While some commentators attribute this approach to Koizumi's lack of leadership qualities, the tactic is much more likely to be part of the Prime Minister's highly tuned political survival instincts. Koizumi has already proved he possesses a phenomenal political sense for gauging public sentiment and his current line on Iraq is probably his own strategy for avoiding the political meltdown that is engulfing British Prime Minister Tony Blair over the same issue.

The Japanese government's basic approach on Iraq is best encapsulated by Koizumi's carefully worded statement at the beginning of February, "Watching future developments closely, Japan will have to act as a responsible member of the international community and a U.S. ally." Although, the PM has hinted that Japan would support an American-led military offensive against Iraq, he has counterbalanced this position by saying that it would be "desirable" if the United Nations Security Council adopts a new resolution backing such an attack. When pressed on whether Japan would support a U.S.-led strike in the absence of a new U.N. resolution, Koizumi's position is that Japan is awaiting the outcome of Security Council discussions on the matter. He was recently quoted as saying, "We will make a decision (on whether to support an American attack on Iraq) following discussions at the United Nations."

While this might seem like political indecisiveness, a careful analysis of the political toll which clarity has cost British Prime Minister Tony Blair has probably convinced Koizumi that vagueness on this issue is a virtue. Both leaders have been dealt a similar set of cards, but so far Koizumi has played his domestic hand far more cunningly than Blair. While Blair might bask in the glare of American admiration for his forthright stance on Iraq, at home he is on the ropes, while Koizumi is still standing tall.

In both nations, a U.S. attack on Iraq is an immensely unpopular proposition, but in each country the political classes feel a strong allegiance to America. This means that both leaders have to defy the wishes of the vast majority of their voters by supporting the American position. Examining the polling data gives an idea of the massive scale of the problem facing both leaders. According to the most recent British opinion survey by BBC TV, 91% of British people would not back a war with Iraq without a second U.N. resolution. Furthermore, 45% of British people believe the U.K. should play no part in a war on Iraq whatever the U.N. decides. In Japan a February poll conducted by Kyodo News found that 78.7% of Japanese oppose a U.S.-led military attack on Iraq. Some 48.5% said that the Japanese government should not support a military strike. Japanese public opinion has changed little since last September when an Asahi Shimbun survey found that 77% of Japanese opposed a war with Iraq. These figures explain why Koizumi has not been overly keen to take a resolute stand on what Japan would do should the United States invade Iraq.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that the reason why public opinion in Germany and France is so totally opposed to war in Iraq is because their governments are adopting an anti-war stance. However, Mr Rumsfeld is missing a crucial point. Politicians in these countries are not actually leading public opinion, but merely following it. Tony Blair has adopted the opposite approach, defying the British public's wishes by taking a strong pro-American stance. As a result, his party is at a decade-low of 35% in the opinion polls and his own personal rating has nose-dived. Some British commentators are even speculating that it will be difficult for Blair to remain in office much longer.

Even if the war is quick and successful, political analysts believe the damage Blair has sustained may be irreversible. His staunch support for President Bush has led the media to label him "Mr. Vice-president" and former South African President Nelson Mandela has described Blair as the "U.S. foreign minister." Moreover, Blair's steadfast support for President Bush has created a strong anti-war sentiment in the general population. This feeling is graphically illustrated by nationwide polls conducted by Britain's Channel 4 News. Back in November 2002, Britons were asked which country they regarded as the greatest threat to world peace. Number one was Iraq, followed by the U.S. with Israel in third place. After months in which Blair has vigorously argued the American case, the Channel 4 poll for February shows that Iraq has now actually slipped down to third place with North Korea jumping into the number two slot. Almost unbelievably, most Britons now regard the United States as the greatest threat to world peace. These results echo a January 2003 poll which showed more than one-third of Canadians now believe the Bush administration is the most dangerous threat to world peace, easily outranking Saddam Hussein. Such findings illustrate the daunting prospect Koizumi faces in supporting a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Koizumi must surely feel that his lack of clarity has so far been a political asset.

While Blair's approach can be considered principled and statesman like, it also has all the hallmarks of a political suicide. Koizumi's track-record does not suggest that he will readily take on the mantle of political martyr. Nevertheless, as the situation surrounding Iraq intensifies, Japan's status as an American ally will receive much greater international attention. The moment of truth is rapidly drawing close and Koizumi will shortly have to clarify his position. The next few weeks promise to be the most testing of the Koizumi premiership and the world will soon learn whether international statesmanship is an attribute of this masterful politician.

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