Battle lines were drawn last summer when President Barack Obama nominated Caroline Kennedy for the post of U.S. ambassador to Japan. Opponents quickly pointed out that she lacks diplomatic experience and that she failed miserably in her only effort to seek public office -- an aborted 2008 attempt to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate. Like the most recent ambassador to Japan, John Roos, Kennedy is the product of a patronage system that holds the nomination bar low enough for heavy bags of cash -- or in her case, tons of influence -- to be tossed over. The Kennedy appointment is "ornamental" opined one commentator; it was "amateur hour" declared another. Former diplomats and analysts weighed in, insisting her appointment would discourage the professionals in the U.S. foreign service and insult America's Japanese allies, who could only interpret it as evidence that Washington sees Japan as a declining state that can be taken for granted.
None of these charges is unreasonable -- though Kennedy's hearing today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appears to have gone smoothly, with no obvious hiccups threatening to derail her confirmation. Nonetheless, Kennedy's defenders have struggled to make a convincing case, generally employing some variation on one of four arguments in her favor -- each of which either misrepresents history or misimagines Japan. As lawmakers prepare to vote on her confirmation -- at a private meeting that has yet to be scheduled -- it's worth taking a look at each of these arguments in turn.
The first is that the only living child of President John F. Kennedy will win the hearts and minds of credulous, celebrity-loving Japanese (see, for example, this puff piece in the style section the Sunday New York Times that might as well have been written by Kennedy's publicist.) A more substantive version of this trope features a successful 1962 visit to Tokyo by Attorney General Robert Kennedy that is credited with smoothing over a rough patch in U.S.-Japan relations. At a pivotal moment during that visit, Kennedy faced a querulous crowd of Waseda University students, still angry after the violent 1960 protests in Tokyo against the controversial U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Kennedy is said to have handled the situation with trademark intelligence and charm, ending the evening triumphantly and helping to turn the tide against anti-American sentiment. But that was hardly the whole story.
Another hero of that evening was the U.S. ambassador, Edwin O. Reischauer, a Japan specialist who understood the context of the students' anger. Mollifying the crowd in fluent Japanese, Reischauer provided Kennedy with a much more receptive audience than he otherwise would have faced. One real lesson of that Kennedy visit, then, is that ambassadors matter -- particularly in moments of crisis. Given how tense Japan's relations are with its neighbors and how unsettled relations are with the United States over the relocation of U.S. marines in Okinawa, it is worth asking whether Tokyo in 2013 is the right destination for a political appointee whose qualifications rest mostly with her family's history in the American spotlight.
The second argument in Kennedy's favor stresses her personal qualities, including her ability to navigate gracefully through difficult political and social shoals. People on both sides of the Pacific are well aware of how often she has had to call upon these skills -- often in tragic circumstances. These are indeed marks in Kennedy's favor. Ambassadors, after all, must act diplomatically under pressure. But while social skills may contribute to an envoy's success, they're hardly enough to justify appointment in the first place -- especially to a country that serves as a front-line ally at a moment when balances of national power are shifting.
In the third argument, Kennedy's close ties to the president are trotted out as a justification for her appointment. "What you really want in an ambassador is someone who can get the president of the United States on the phone," former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell told the New York Times. "I can't think of anybody in the United States who could do that more quickly than Caroline Kennedy." There is certainly something to this. U.S. ambassadors often have to deliver bad news and do need to convince their hosts that they speak with the authority of the president. But until Obama's appointment of Roos, a lawyer and campaign financier, all of the U.S. envoys to Tokyo for the previous three decades were political or diplomatic heavyweights: Mike Mansfield had been Senate majority leader, Michael Armacost was a former undersecretary of state for political affairs, Walter Mondale was vice president, Howard Baker was Senate majority leader, Tom Foley was speaker of the House of Representatives, and Tom Schieffer had been U.S. ambassador to Australia. There was never any doubt that any of these men could get POTUS on the phone, but neither was there the suggestion that this was a sufficient condition for the post.