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Obama runs risk with Roos in Hiroshima

Attendance may touch off backlash in U.S.

by Shinya Ajima and Ben Dooley

Kyodo News

HIROSHIMA/WASHINGTON — As U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos on Friday became the first U.S. representative to attend the annual ceremony to commemorate the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the move was fraught with both political gains and risks for U.S. President Barack Obama.

Obama shares with Japan the goal of achieving a world without nuclear weapons. The decision to send Roos, one of his closest friends, to Hiroshima was welcomed by the Japanese government and public, with analysts saying it has even generated momentum for Obama’s goal.

Experts said, however, that by sending Roos, the Obama administration runs the risk of a political backlash at home. The envoy’s attendance at the ceremony fueled speculation in Japan that the president himself may visit Hiroshima soon, even though such a trip remains a sensitive and difficult issue.

The president’s decision to send the ambassador appears to be consistent with his vision of a nuclear-free world, a goal he has vigorously pursued in international summits and treaties, including a new arms reduction treaty with Russia.

“This year, momentum has been generated toward the reduction of various nuclear risks, including moves to nuclear disarmament,” said Nobumasa Akiyama, an associate professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. “The ambassador joining the ceremony can be seen as a significant message and may help maintain the momentum.”

While the United States strives to prevent nuclear terrorism, such momentum will enhance the “legitimacy” of the U.S. argument and its leadership in the world, Akiyama said.

Backing the U.S. position, Britain and France, two other major nuclear powers, also sent their first official delegations to the Hiroshima memorial this year.

Robert Einhorn, special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control at the U.S. State Department, recently said in Tokyo that despite a long way to go, Obama launched an important process.

“President Obama is not naive. He knows that you can’t achieve a world without nuclear weapons overnight,” Einhorn told reporters. “But you (must) begin that process . . . that’s what President Obama has done.”

The U.S. resolve to achieve a nuclear-free world has led the Japanese to think that Obama might visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki very soon, as he is expected to visit Japan in November for the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Yokohama.

“We have hope” for a possible visit, a Japanese government official said. But that hope might fade if negative aspects of the tour are considered.

Obama has previously said he would like to visit Hiroshima. But analysts agree Roos’ visit is not indicative of any future plans by the president to travel to the city, a trip some believe might create a domestic political backlash.

“For the president of the United States to go to Hiroshima is not a small thing,” said Michael Green, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Politically, it is fraught with peril for him back in the U.S.”

A senior White House official said Thursday that Obama has no plans so far to visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But the official also told Kyodo News on condition of anonymity that Roos visited Hiroshima “with the support of the president.”

Green, formerly senior Asia adviser to President George W. Bush, said any trip to the cities by Obama will force him to voice an opinion on the bombings, thereby creating an intractable dilemma — an apology would subject him to domestic political assault, and justifying the attack would draw fire from Japan.

In addition, there is strong sentiment in the U.S., especially among conservatives and war veterans, that before a U.S. president visits Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Japan’s prime minister must visit Pearl Harbor, said Akiyama of Hitotsubashi University.

Under those circumstances, even Roos’ trip intensified nervousness on the U.S. side.