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The Inept Captain of a Sinking Ship

The rise and fall of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, and his party.

Before heading to the G-8 conference in Italy this week, Taro Aso, Japan's prime minister, made several campaign appearances in advance of Tokyo's July 12 Metropolitan Assembly elections. At one stop on the outskirts of the Japanese capital, though, he seemed particularly weary, as if weighed down by his abysmal approval ratings (below 20 percent in some polls). His stump speech argued that voters should stick with the devil they know, rather than seeking change. One banner line? "No one's perfect."

For a politician known for his dogmatism and occasional grandiosity, the admission was striking. Aso toiled to win top office in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Japan's government for a decade. He served in increasingly important party and cabinet posts -- including foreign minister -- under Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe. After his election, he stressed his potential: "I can fulfill the heavenly decree of defeating the [opposition] DPJ [Democratic Party of Japan] for the government party." But by then, the LDP, which has ruled Japan largely uninterrupted for 54 years, was stumbling. It had lost the upper-house election, Abe and Fukuda had flamed out, and the party was losing seats and public support.

Now, Aso is nothing less than an inept captain of an already-sinking ship: a mediocre-at-best politician incapable of rescuing his party from looming electoral defeat and, possibly, a post-election split.

Like Abe before him, Aso is the scion of a leading Japanese political family: He's the grandson of Shigeru Yoshida, the occupation-era prime minister who earned the sobriquet "One Man" for his sometimes-imperious style of governing. Aso is also a child of privilege. His father's family owned a major coal-mining concern that became a major cement producer. He attended Gakushuin University in Tokyo, notable as the university of choice for Japan's imperial family, and did abbreviated stints at Stanford University and the London School of Economics before returning to Japan to work in the family business. He worked in Brazil and Sierra Leone, returned to Japan again to oversee the business's transition from coal mining to cement production, and competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics in shooting. It was not until 1979 that he was first elected to Japan's House of Representatives.

Although Aso is not unique among LDP members in having a distinguished pedigree, he has cultivated a reputation as a maverick that sets him apart from his colleagues -- and made his selection as prime minister a particularly risky decision for the ruling party. His adoration of manga, an unusual interest for a leading politician, is no secret. Also unorthodox for a Japanese politician, he wears his ego on his sleeve. During the 2008 LDP presidential campaign, for example, he insisted that not a single one of his predecessors as foreign minister could match his abilities. He has a pronounced history of insensitive, callous, or just plain offensive remarks, and in the past dismissed or downplayed the more brutal behavior of the Japanese Empire. (That said, since becoming prime minister, Aso has tried to reform. He reaffirmed the Murayama statement, whereby Japan apologized for invading and colonizing Asian countries. He also dismissed a high-ranking military figure who openly questioned the government line on Japan's wartime past.)

But while his historical opinions have drawn criticism abroad, it's his sheer insensitivity to the concerns of the average Japanese that has caused him the most political trouble at home. In the first month of his premiership, Aso spent all but four evenings in expensive bars and restaurants. When a reporter questioned the prime minister about whether it was appropriate given the deepening economic crisis, Aso snapped back that hotel bars are "cheap" and proclaimed that he could spend his own money as he wished. Around the same time, he told reporters that "ordinary people cannot understand the hardships of people born into extreme wealth." He alienated an important LDP constituency when he suggested that doctors "lack common sense." He has chastized the elderly for not properly attending to their health, wondering why he had to pay for "patients who do nothing but eat and drink" and expressing his bafflement at the infirmities of his classmates when he attends school reunions.

Despite his self-assurance, it seems Aso will oversee the party during what looks to be a historic defeat. Amazingly -- considering that the LDP and its coalition partner won a supermajority in 2005 -- the governing coalition is poised to lose its parliamentary majority entirely. It's also expected that the LDP will cede control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the party's creation in 1955. But how much responsibility will Aso bear for these defeats?

Arguably not much. Aso's response to the global financial crisis has certainly been inadequate, centered on economically questionable cash handouts to citizens in the hope of stimulating domestic demand. But though the recession has worsened the LDP's standing in the eyes of the Japanese people, the LDP was looking like a terminal case even before the financial crisis and before Aso became prime minister. As Yasuo Fukuda, Aso's predecessor, said at the LDP convention in January 2008, "We are facing the greatest crisis since the foundation of the party."

It would have taken little short of a miracle for Aso to avoid the fate of Fukuda, Abe, and the party itself. Opinion polls consistently show that the public values "the ability to get things done" most highly in its governments: The electorate wants pensions, healthcare, welfare reform, economic growth, and jobs. The LDP has been disappointing in these areas.

The Abe government was defeated in 2007 in large part due to its mishandling of a scandal in which the social security agency was found to have lost tens of millions of pension records. The healthcare system is strained, especially in rural Japan, where there is a shortage of doctors. Rural Japan has been economically stagnant since long before the global financial crisis. The government's finances are in shambles as a result of the LDP's pork-laden attempts to escape Japan's "lost" 1990s, constraining the government's options in responding to the current economic crisis and providing a better social safety net.

The LDP and political commentators have blamed the DPJ, which controls the upper house, for hamstringing legislation on these crucial issues. But the LDP's supermajority in the lower house means it can pass legislation over opposition objections. Blame for the policy paralysis rests squarely on its shoulders.

Members of the LDP are also pointing fingers at each other -- and Aso seems incapable of stopping the party infighting. To be sure, the LDP has long been characterized by its internal divisions. Between the 1950s and 1990s, these disputes were often over how to divide a growing pie and involved crosscutting alliances of politicians and bureaucrats. After its temporary exile in 1993, the party, facing a stagnant economy, an aging population, and an ineffective administrative structure, really started to split. Reformists wanted to rebrand it as an urban, "neoliberal," consumer-focused party -- rather than a traditionalist, business-focused, conservative one.

This battle intensified with the election of reformer Koizumi as LDP president and prime minister in 2001. He promised to "destroy the LDP" and in doing so transform Japan. Instead, he merely intensified the internal battle. The reformists, many of whom owe their seats to Koizumi, have been increasingly isolated from senior government and party posts, but remain forthright advocates of far-reaching political, economic, and administrative changes. The hidebound Aso is now facing an open rebellion, with some reformists calling in public for his resignation.

The result has been chaos within the LDP -- an identity crisis with severe consequences for Japan as a whole. For years, the LDP has endlessly and ineffectually debated how to solve Japan's most pressing economic and social problems. And while the party has dithered, serious, interlocking problems have grown inexorably.

Japan now has the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the G-8, despite Koizumi's efforts to cut spending. Social security spending, not surprisingly, constitutes an ever greater share of the budget. Tokyo's population continues to grow as areas outside the capital shrink and stagnate. The percentage of nonregular workers, ineligible for benefits, has nearly doubled. In aggregate, this means that a permanent underclass -- with few opportunities for social advancement and none of the protections normally afforded to workers -- has emerged. The Japanese public is distressed about these developments, but the LDP has been too mired in its own contradictions to make substantial progress on reform in any area.

The party apparently cannot change itself, giving the electorate little reason to believe it can change public policy or, ultimately, Japan. With the LDP stalled on the way to transformation, the public is ready to give another party the opportunity to implement reforms. And there is nothing Taro Aso can do about it.

Epilogue:

Chaos continues to engulf the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan for much of the past 50 years.

As anticipated by polls, the LDP (and Komeito, its partner in government) were defeated in last Sunday's Tokyo local elections. The public overwhelmingly favored the more-liberal Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which won 54 seats and emerged as the chamber's largest party. It and other opposition parties combined won enough seats to take a majority -- thus denying the LDP its widely broadcast goal.

The embarrassing loss spurred Japanese Prime Minister and LDP leader Taro Aso to act decisively for perhaps the first time since taking office. Before his rivals got their bearings, he reached an agreement with senior LDP and Komeito officials on a snap election. Japan's House of Representatives will dissolve July 21 and the general election will be held August 30.

Calling the general election the day after a humiliating local election defeat was a wise maneuver on Aso's part. He headed off LDP members seeking to depose him in a moment of weakness. A long lag between the local election defeat and general election would have given time for anti-Aso reformists to unseat him and choose a new party leader. But now the party machinery needs to gear up and focus on the national contest, leaving his critics with a rapidly closing window of opportunity.

But Aso's decision to call an election has also intensified the party's Balkanization -- an ultimately counterproductive development. Party reformists unable to unseat Aso have but a few, unpleasant options: Leave the party and join the DPJ or the nascent reformist party formed by Yoshimi Watanabe; make a shame-faced peace with Aso and the LDP leadership; or continue fomenting dissent against Aso within the LDP. The longer they wait to make their decision, the harder it will be for the LDP to unify around a single platform.

In the meantime, the DPJ is finalizing its own manifesto -- and can barely contain its glee that Aso will be leading the LDP into the general election. At this point there is little for the DPJ to do but mind its own ranks. The LDP is doing more than enough to undermine whatever claim it has to being, in an oft-used phrase, the "responsible government party."

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Commander of the Faithful

Meet the man who is Islamabad and Washington's new Public Enemy No. 1.

In May of last year, a convoy of journalists made its way from Peshawar up into the remote reaches of South Waziristan. They were responding to an invitation from the diminutive, diabetic, and hypertensive commander of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban. With characteristic grandiosity, the commander laid out a lavish feast for the reporters before sharing his reason for summoning them: an official declaration of jihad against U.S forces across the border in Afghanistan.

Meet Baitullah Mehsud -- Pakistan's biggest problem, and the man who has taken his country of 176 million to the center of the West's war on terror. Once described by a Pakistani general as a "soldier of peace," he now carries a 50 million rupee (about $615,300) bounty on his head from Pakistan and a $5 million one from the United States. Mehsud is earning the ire of the Pakistani military and Western policymakers alike as his movement destabilizes Pakistan, and the United States has destroyed several of his hide-outs with drone strikes in recent months. His now-famous 2008 press conference -- which came almost exactly a decade after Osama bin Laden called for the killing of Americans in a similar announcement just across the border in Khost, Afghanistan -- was an extraordinary piece of stagecraft even for a commander with a certain penchant for public flare. By incautiously exposing his location to a big group of journalists, Mehsud should have facilitated his own capture; that he didn't serves as ongoing testament to the incompetence (and perhaps lack of will) of those who purport to pursue him.

Mehsud's growing influence is of particular concern to Western policymakers because Pakistan represents the gravest general security threat to the international community -- the prospect of a nuclear-armed al Qaeda. Keeping Pakistan's nuclear weapons out of the hands of Islamist extremists is contingent on a stable Pakistani state, and Mehsud is the one man perhaps most capable of destabilizing it.

According to journalists from the tribal region, Mehsud's force structure is diverse: It includes approximately 12,000 local fighters, many belonging to his own Mehsud tribe, and close to 4,000 foreign fighters, predominantly Arabs and Central Asians seasoned in the Afghan jihad of the 1980s. Many of them spent time in al Qaeda training camps and can't return to their home countries for fear of prosecution. By giving them a cause and a home -- in parts of South Waziristan where they are accessible to him on short notice -- Mehsud has expanded his corps of fighters. He also has a stable of teenage boys who have been indoctrinated to serve as suicide bombers. For the last five years, Mehsud has used this army to terrorize Pakistan with suicide bombings, hostage takings, and brazen military offensives. In one spectacular show of strength, he took close to 300 Pakistani soldiers, including officers, hostage in South Waziristan in August 2007. Mehsud demanded that his top militant prisoners be freed in exchange. It was a glorious moment for Mehsud when the government agreed after just 2½ months.

With this singular résumé, it was no surprise that Mehsud was named head of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan when the group formed in December 2007. Since then, the man known as amir (leader) by his followers has expanded his campaign by launching a remarkably effective drive to erode state writ and disassemble traditional tribal structures, both of which constitute obstacles to Taliban rule. He has ordered the murder of more than 300 tribal elders, clearing the way for Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt to become something of a forward operating base for terrorists.

"He has a hand in virtually every terrorist attack in Pakistan," Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said recently. Indeed, a United Nations report released in September 2007 blamed Mehsud for almost 80 percent of suicide bombings in Afghanistan. Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials have accused him of assassinating the country's most popular politician and ex-prime minster, Benazir Bhutto -- a charge he has denied.

Mehsud's connections are extensive throughout Pakistan and the region. He has taken an oath of allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. He is close to al Qaeda's top leadership in the Af-Pak border region and to Qari Tahir Yaldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He is also well-connected to the Punjabi militant groups that have long been operating in Indian-occupied Kashmir. And he maintains cordial ties with the Haqqani network, widely considered by Western officials to be one of the most dangerous groups of veteran jihadists in the region and the bridge between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban movements.

Despite Mehsud's infamy today, little is known about the man or his past. He seems to crave public attention but won't let his face be photographed; he is said to be charismatic in person but not a gifted public speaker. Currently in his late 30s, he was born in Bannu on the southern side of the border between North and South Waziristan. He belongs to the Shabikhel branch of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. Unlike most Taliban commanders and tribal elders in the region, he was neither well-educated nor wealthy; he attended a madrasa and school but never finished either. Yet he has been able to capitalize on his humble beginnings to win support. In recent attacks, he has targeted landowners, positioning the Taliban as something of a people's movement. To win respect among insurgents, he has played up a reputation for battlefield bravery and claims to have participated in the anti-Soviet jihad (which is disputed, as he would have been a young boy during most of it). Whatever the truth of his origins, it's clear Mehsud first solidified his position in the insurgency by playing a major role in repelling Pakistani military operations in Waziristan ongoing since 2005.

So, how to check a man who has become so entrenched in the region? A favorite tactic of the Pakistani military has been working with rival leaders. Since 2006, Pakistan has purportedly been trying to pit commanders such as Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur -- the top militant leaders from South and North Waziristan -- against Mehsud. But here, the government has met little success because Mehsud has in many cases dismantled the centuries-old tribal structures in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); there is no mechanism left to mobilize against him. This June, another Taliban commander, Qari Zainuddin, challenged Mehsud and was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. The murder was a stark message to others who might try the same.

One pressure point might be Mehsud's funding stream, but no one is certain exactly where his money is coming from. According to local sources, he taxes trucks passing through the region and might be drawing ransom payments from the kidnappings of Western journalists and officials, both of which have become increasingly common along the Af-Pak border. It's also known that for a time, he received funds from al Qaeda through Sirajuddin Haqqani -- son of legendary Afghan mujahideen commander and insurgent Jalaluddin Haqqani. But no one has yet put forth a practical plan for how to disrupt Mehsud's income stream.

Implausible conspiracy theories about Mehsud also abound, and his carefully maintained mystique does nothing to quell them. Lately, conjectures about who Mehsud's benefactors might be have been running in the Pakistani press and circulating among officials. Many claim he is an "Indian agent" who receives support from the Indian consulates in border cities of Afghanistan. The theory is that India supports Mehsud as retribution for Pakistan's government-backed militant groups meddling in Kashmir. Another emerging candidate is even more absurd: America. The United States wants Pakistan to become so unstable, the reasoning goes, that it is obligated to come in and secure the nukes. How else can one explain why U.S. troops haven't killed him yet? Pakistani intelligence officials were recently quoted in the press saying that they had twice tipped off U.S. forces about Mehsud's whereabouts so that he could be targeted. According to them, the tips were ignored.

Yet if ever there were a time to go after Mehsud, it is now. With Pakistani forces claiming success in their recent operation against the Taliban in the picturesque Swat Valley, which displaced some 2.5 million people, the Tehrik-e-Taliban leader is the next assumed target. Official statements indicate that Pakistan's beleaguered military is finally flexing its muscles for what has been described by the local media as a "decisive showdown" with Mehsud and his fighters. But Pakistanis and Western experts are still skeptical about how firm the military's commitment is. Local tribesmen have accused the Pakistan Army of adopting a policy of appeasement, for example by signing a "peace deal" with Mehsud in February 2005 rather than taking any serious action against him and his fighters. Mehsud certainly never honored any accord with the government, for which he was supposed to disarm his militia and stop cross-border terrorism. Quite the opposite; such agreements have made Mehsud bolder and stronger and have provided him the chance to grow his forces and strengthen his position -- now spanning the whole FATA region and parts of the North-West Frontier Province.

Until he is finally taken down, Mehsud will continue bullying Pakistan's military, challenging the state, uprooting centuries-old tribal structures, and sowing the seeds of chaos across the country. Mehsud recently announced that his next target would be the heart of U.S. power -- the White House in Washington. He hasn't failed to come through on such a promise like that yet.

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images