Thursday, February 28, 2008

Briefly: Defense Minister Looks Doomed

Before I go back to the rest of my life: Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba appears to be near the end of the line after irregular conduct in information gathering as well as public communications delays have been exposed with regard to the February 19 collision between the Aegis destroyer Atago and the fishing boat that left the two-man crew of the smaller vessel missing in the winter waters off Tokyo Bay.

The accident, together with the subsequent missteps in crisis management, has strengthened an already well-entrenched public perception of an incompetent, even corrupt, defense establishment. Although the English-language media has focused on the rape cases with US military personnel in Okinawa as suspects, the accident has totally dominated the headlines in the Japanese media. Resignation of the straight-talking, well-respected, national security wonk Mr. Ishiba will be particularly damaging, since people had expected that he if anyone would be able to clean up the mess. Now, he has become part of the problem.

Losing Mr. Ishiba will be particularly damaging to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, since he was one of only two replacements that Mr. Fukuda made when he inherited near-intact a one-month old Cabinet from his predecessor Shinzō Abe.

Discussions of a general, permanent replacement for the current law authorizing JSDF operations in Iraq (set to expire in 2009 January) are already being put on hold. Work on the realignment of US and Japanese forces will be further delayed (though to be sure, it’s already been more than a ten-year wait and so far it’s been mostly plans but little physical movement).

The opposition is with good reason using this in the political game. A resignation gives them further ammunition in their use of the accident to use up the clock so that the budget (as well as the budget-related legislation) does not make it out of the Lower House by the end of this month. That would virtually guarantee that the budget will not go into effect by the beginning of the next fiscal year, on April 1. This is not nearly as inconvenient as some people might think (it’s happened before and there are laws that ensure that the business of government does not come to a stop). However, the delay in the deliberation of budget-related bills including the all-important gasoline tax surcharge extension will have real-world implications that will certainly be distressful to the ruling coalition, as well as the Fukuda administration specifically. The less time that there is, the more inclined the LDP will be to make concessions and the less willing the DPJ will be to oblige.

The Fukuda administration will not fall because of this entire affair, but I doubt that it can survive another blow of a similar magnitude. At that point, I believe that the LDP will trot out the next horse so that the coalition can survive the next Lower House election.

Recently, there has been some talk by Junichirō Koizumi on some major issues. I suspect that Mr. Koizumi himself will be a major issue fairly soon, if that isn’t happening already.

On this last point, Mr. Koizumi’s two sequels have been definitely underwhelming, and maybe it’s just me, but I think that the affable and entertaining Tarō Asō has a lightweight feel that makes him a miscast. But Mr. Koizumi won’t want to do Superman 4; it would have to be a Spiderman. Could saving his gasoline tax/road construction reform be enough of an incentive to lure him back? After all, putting the money into the general budget and shrinking public works was his idea in the first place. It’s really anyone’s guess, and perhaps he doesn’t know himself.


Jan Moren said...

A "triumphant return performance" rarely is, in politics. Once a political leading actor has left the stage they can rarely come back again. During their absence people forget all the small, human details, and their reputation hardens and magnifies. Allies remember a mythical time of wonder and superhuman accomplishments; opponents harden into hatred of an evil caricature of the person. Nobody can overcome those kinds of expectations and come out ahead.

This is to some degree what happened to Bill Clinton as he took to the stage again to promote his wife's candidacy. Bill, the man, exposed himself as more flawed and more human than the outsized character he had become in the public imagination. Failing to meet those impossible expectations, his campaign help fell short.

I suspect something similar would befall Koizumi would he decide to take the stage again.

Jun Okumura said...

If you took all the girls I knew
When I was single
And brought them all together for one night
I know they'd never match
My sweet imagination
And everything looks worse in black and white

It's the same story everywhere, isn't it?

In Mr. Koizumi's favor, there is no Barack Obama in sight.

Incidentally, there is a chance that Mr. Ishiba's demise will be somewhat drawn out due to coalition fears of touching off a broader slide, as well as the fact that the opposition wouldn't mind taking whacks at Mr. Ishiba as he twists slowly in the wind, like a political pinata. But I expect it to be a matter of weeks at most, just long enough for the Defense Minister to bring some order to the situation.