Confident Koizumi Outshines Demoralized Blair
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
Are we witnessing the beginning of the end for British Prime Minister Tony Blair? This is a question that must have raced through the mind of Japanese Premier Junichiro Koizumi as he hurriedly rescued his distraught friend from the jowls of the global media. Freezing like a deer in the glare of headlights, an exhausted Blair was totally thrown by a hard-hitting question during a press conference. He was only saved from prolonged embarrassment by the swift action of his Japanese host, who abruptly terminated the gathering and gently escorted the pale-faced Briton off stage. This unusual incident may eventually be seen as a defining moment in both men's careers, but for strikingly different reasons.
Mr. Blair was in Japan for a brief three-day visit that was meant to focus on unstable North Korea, but instead an Iraq-related controversy dogged his every step. The British leader had left Washington a hero, but by the time he reached Tokyo was a zero. The cause for this lightening transformation was the suicide of a central figure in a bitter political battle raging between the Blair administration and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
This tempestuous backdrop rumbled under the uneasy surface of the two leaders' joint press conference during which it felt as if it was only Koizumi's energy that kept a physically drained Blair on the stage. The Japanese leader succeeded in defending his "courageous" colleague until a British journalist leapt up and demanded, "Have you got blood on your hands, Prime Minister? Are you going to resign?" The Macbeth-like comment left Blair speechless and the painfully long silence that followed was only extinguished by Koizumi's quick intervention. While the Japanese media tended to overlook this incident, it formed the top story for all the British news agencies.
The eye of this political storm revolves around the reasons for invading Iraq, which some elements of the British media claim were exaggerated by their own government to make the case for war more compelling than it actually was. A senior defence advisor, Dr. David Kelly, was the main insider source of these damaging revelations and his suicide has greatly complicated the already perilous political landscape. Blair is now condemned to months of damaging battles about prewar intelligence reports, something that will further erode his already severely battered authority. While the ever courteous Japanese media only fully explained these facts after Blair had left the country, the British press showed no such mercy.
For Blair, this episode only adds to his mountain of political woes and may eventually be considered as the point when he himself momentarily acknowledged that his career was on a terminally downward spiral. Seemingly confirming this impression, a Daily Telegraph poll conducted immediately after the Japan visit found 39% of British voters now think that Blair should resign as opposed to 41% who say he should stay.
Contrastingly, Blair's temporary lapse in Japan was a huge bonus for Koizumi as it enabled him to display his considerable political skill on home turf. After this performance, his current approval rating of 55% is almost certain to get a boost. This will greatly help him in the widely anticipated November general election. Although Koizumi himself has had a few rough parliamentary clashes on the missing weapons of mass destruction issue, overall the conflict has greatly enhanced his political standing.
The greatest irony of this entire saga is that Blair's own arguments for going to war formed a central plank in the justification for military action that Koizumi gave to the Japanese people. In fact, his reliance on Blair was so great that opposition politicians dubbed him "the parrot." They claimed he was simply mouthing the translated words of Tony Blair and devoid of his own ideas. That Koizumi should flourish while Blair falters is an amazingly bizarre twist of fate. It certainly demonstrates that the Japanese are still great masters at adapting the ideas of others for their own ingenious devices.
(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 23 July 2003, http://www.atimes.com, and is republished with permission.)
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