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Why the Syrian crisis matters for Japan

by Andrew J. Sutter

Special To The Japan Times

U.S. President Barack Obama’s weeks of fumbling during the Syrian chemical weapons crisis may create dangerous uncertainties for Japan during the rest of his presidency.

From the moment Obama announced his intention to consult with Congress about a military strike, he seemed to have scored a damaging own-goal. Abstaining from military action would make his earlier tough talk about “red lines” look like empty bluster. To strike after a “no” vote in Congress would attract blame at home and abroad. And even to strike with congressional approval wouldn’t erase questions about whether the delay diminished the strike’s tactical efficacy. (To say nothing of the problem that such a strike would violate the United Nations charter.)

Was congressional approval even needed in this situation? Back in 2008, Senators Obama and Biden asserted the U.S. Constitution requires it; but now Obama, like most presidents before him, claims otherwise. He didn’t consult Congress before the 2011 bombing of Libya, for example. So why do so now? Maybe to find a face-saving way to back down from his red-line ultimatum, after all. But then why lobby members of Congress and go on television to drum up support for a strike? As Machiavelli noted several centuries ago in his Discourses on Livy: “One should not make threats first and then request authority.” To do so, he wrote, is simply stupidity.

As if these hesitations and inconsistencies weren’t humiliating enough, Obama gave Russian President Vladimir Putin his second opportunity in little over a month to look like a statesman. Obama admitted that a Russian proposal about Syrian chemical weapons might lead to a diplomatic “breakthrough.” A few weeks earlier, he had been bullying countries in Europe and South America to capture whistleblower Edward Snowden, until Russia offered Snowden temporary asylum.

It’s not my point here to examine whether Obama’s position (much less Putin’s) was substantively right or wrong on any of these issues. More pertinent is how he presented his positions. By appearing to be such an amateur at both domestic and international politics, he has weakened his own, and America’s, authority. And that poses dangers to Japan.

The obvious danger is that China, North Korea, or another of Japan’s neighbors becomes ever more provocative between now and the end of Obama’s term in 2017.

In that case, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the U.S. and Japan may be less reliable than we think. The phrase “subject to constitutional limitations” appears frequently in the treaty’s descriptions of the parties’ duties. Back in 1960, when the treaty was signed, the obvious connotation was Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution. But today the phrase might be read as a constraint on U.S. action.

Under many scenarios, whether the president would have a constitutional duty to consult with Congress before helping Japan would be an open question. And it will probably remain so, because the U.S. Supreme Court is loath to step in to adjudicate such “political questions,” as lawyers call them. An argument between the executive and legislative branches might slow down assistance to Japan. Obama’s own flip-flop on the issue doesn’t help.

Anyway, Obama might feel politically constrained to consult Congress. He needs its good will to secure his domestic agenda and his legacy of accomplishment. But who knows whether members of Congress and their constituents will be eager to confront a nuclear power in Northeast Asia, given their reluctance to confront Syria?

Any sensible Japanese administration will see this uncertainty lying ahead — and therein lies a second threat. The prospect of American paralysis may provide a convenient justification for revisions to Article 9. Or simply for an enhanced militarization in the name of self-defense, without bothering to amend the Constitution at all.

I can’t say categorically that enhancing Japan’s defenses, or even amending Article 9, would always be wrong. But any such measure must be balanced by building up Japan’s democratic institutions. Currently we have an unrepresentative Diet, an unaccountable bureaucracy, and a Supreme Court that is among the world’s most lethargic in defending the rights of citizens. A stronger military must be subject to stronger checks and balances, and stronger protections for human rights.

Unfortunately, Japan already appears to be heading in exactly the opposite direction. The 2012 draft Constitution proposed by the Liberal Democratic Party does nothing to enhance checks and balances. It goes far to restrict human rights, which the LDP declares to be a concept alien to Japanese culture. And while the rest of the world was horrified to learn from Edward Snowden how the United States and United Kingdom spy on their own citizens’ emails and phone calls, the Abe administration sought advice about how to do something similar here.

So long as the LDP controls the Diet, it could have a free hand to erode human rights by legislative action alone, in the name of national security. Despite authority to declare unconstitutional laws null and void, Japan’s Supreme Court almost never does so. It is far more prone to finding untouchable “political questions” than are its American or European counterparts. Its tendency to allow unconstitutional elections to remain in effect is a perfect example.

An atmosphere of crisis, perhaps engineered in part by the government, could even bring popular support for such measures. The cooperative attitude of many media outlets to spread the government’s view of things would no doubt help.

Of course, Obama can’t be blamed directly if Japan’s neighbors escalate their threats. Nor can he be blamed directly if an LDP administration misuses its electoral “mandate” from a minority of eligible voters. But his missteps over Syria have enhanced the odds of both of those events occurring. And that in turn creates risks for Japanese democracy — risks that come not only from outside, but from within.

Andrew J. Sutter is a specially appointed professor at the College of Law and Politics, Rikkyo University.

  • nobuo takamura

    And that in turn creates risks for Japanese democracy — risks that come not only from outside, but from within. This is it! I’m one of them who are quite concerned about this insinuation by this author. The Constitution drafted by the LDP in Japan is quite close to that notorious Meiji Constitution, which had been helpful at all in a former Japan’s having kept waging various wars, some of which was quite encouraging to that former Japan.