The Blog

Smart Power Strikes Again

11:16 AM, Dec 29, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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When Obama bowed before the King of Saudi Arabia, the White House denied the story. "It wasn't a bow. He grasped his hand with two hands, and he's taller than King Abdullah," an Obama aide told Politico's Ben Smith on the condition of anonymity. It was ludicrous -- the whole world was looking at a picture of Obama kissing the King's feet. So when Obama bowed before the Japanese Emperor, the White House tried another tack (again on condition of anonymity):

"I think that those who try to politicize those things are just way, way, way off base. [Obama] observes protocol. But I don't think anybody who was in Japan -- who saw his speech and the reaction to it, certainly those who witnessed his bilateral meetings there - would say anything other than that he enhanced both the position and the status of the U.S., relative to Japan. It was a good, positive visit at an important time, because there's a lot going on in Japan."

As the wheels come off the U.S.-Japan relationship, it's worth pondering if the President of the United States didn't bow to the wrong Japanese. The Washington Post has a devastating story today on the position and status of the U.S. relative to Japan.

But some U.S. and Asian officials increasingly worry that Hatoyama and others in his party may be considering a significant policy shift -- away from the United States and toward a more independent foreign policy.

They point to recent events as a possible warnings: Hatoyama's call for an East Asian Community with China and South Korea, excluding the United States; the unusually warm welcome given to Xi Junping, China's vice president, on his trip to Japan this month, which included an audience with the emperor; and the friendly reception given to Saeed Jalili, the Iranian national security council secretary, during his visit to Japan last week.

Michael Green, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council during the Bush administration, said the concern is that senior officials in Hatoyama's party with great influence, such as Ichiro Ozawa, want to push Japan toward closer ties with China and less reliance on the United States. That would complicate the U.S. position not just in Japan but in South Korea and elsewhere.

"I think there are questions about what kind of role Ozawa is playing," Green said, adding that Ozawa has not been to the United States in a decade, has yet to meet the U.S. ambassador to Japan, John Roos, and only grudgingly met Clinton during an earlier trip to Japan.

"The prevailing view is that this is basically a populist, inexperienced government sorting out its foreign policy," he said, "but now there is a 10 to 20 percent chance that this is something more problematic."

THE WEEKLY STANDARD blog suspected there was something problematic as soon as the Japanese leader started calling for what sounded eerily like a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, but obviously we don't have the same nuanced understanding of Asian affairs as our first "Pacific President." Still, Hatoyama is proving to be a major problem, and in fact there is little partisan disagreement over how the U.S. relationship with Japan should be managed. It's just that Obama's personal diplomacy seems to have so far failed in getting Hatoyama to play along. Fortunately, Hatoyama is embroiled in his own political crises back home stemming from a series of dubious loans he received from his mother (the Hatoyama family is one of Japan's richest) and may not survive too far into the New Year.