Amateur Hour

Caroline Kennedy might have gotten softball questions at her Senate confirmation hearing, but don’t expect the Japanese to go as easy on her.

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.

The fourth and final argument trumpeted by Kennedy's supporters involves gender: She would be the first woman to occupy the post. We have been told that her appointment would give hope to Japanese women who remain frustrated by gender-bias in the Japanese system. Masako Owada, now the crown princess, was the object of similar expectations two decades ago. At first, the Harvard-educated foreign ministry official was heralded by the Western press as a role model for Japanese women. But these accounts overlooked how alien Owada's life had been to most Japanese, as well as the many other sources of inspiration that existed for Japanese feminists. At least partly for this reason, they failed to anticipate how Japan's tabloid press would turn on the princess and make hers a singularly difficult life in the national spotlight.

Ambassador Kennedy, if she is confirmed, will likewise be met with great enthusiasm and high expectations. But the argument that her nomination will somehow inspire Japanese women presupposes that Japan itself lacks strong female role models in prominent diplomatic posts (news, no doubt, to Sadako Ogata, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and former Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, both women) and has no idea how to achieve gender equality without American tutelage. None of these justifications give credit to the considerable sophistication of Japanese women.

Assuming she gets the job, Kennedy will occupy a challenging and symbolic position. She will do fine until her first misstep on policy -- perhaps some slight to Japanese pride vis-à-vis China or Korea, or misstatement about the disposition of U.S. bases. Then, if history is any guide, the Japanese public will turn on her (and by proxy, the U.S. government). They will wonder -- publicly and loudly -- why Americans take Japan for granted and how Washington could dispatch such a neophyte to such a sensitive post.

One does not have to be a defender of white-shoed mandarins in Foggy Bottom to concede that diplomacy is a profession. The last few years have been rocky ones for the U.S.-Japan relationship, partly because of intense mistrust between Washington and the shaky leadership of Japan's Democratic Party from 2009-2012. We now have a vocal supporter of the U.S.-Japan alliance in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- like Kennedy, the scion of a political dynasty -- but one whose fervent nationalism has roiled the waters around Japan, not just with China but also with American allies like South Korea.

With alarmingly frequent showdowns between Japan's Coast Guard and both Chinese and South Korean ships in the waters around disputed territories, Washington is never far from being dragged into a military confrontation in the region. And this leaves aside lingering public concerns regarding radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, and simmering tension within Japan about the United States itself -- from left-leaning critiques of America's military presence and encouragement of Japan's nuclear industry to the right-leaning anger about the imposition of a Tokyo Tribunal version of Japan's wartime history onto the region.

We can imagine many ways in which Kennedy's experience with non-profits and her work on educational inequality might resonate with different groups in Japan. Her connections to a range of American elites, meanwhile, may well attract a new stratum of American visitors to the country. Anyone who cares about the U.S.-Japan relationship and stability in the Far East has to hope that Ambassador Kennedy will succeed and wish her -- and the cadre of specialists who will surround her at the embassy -- well. But there is ample reason to be concerned.

Kennedy's confirmation hearing today predictably touched on trade, Japanese political economy, and East Asian security -- and the nominee appeared well prepared for the pop quiz. But even if Kennedy wins confirmation, the hearing will hopefully provoke a larger discussion of the spoils system through which many ambassadorial appointments are made. If the role of ambassador is largely that of a figurehead -- or if close ties to the president really are more valuable than experience and expertise -- then the U.S. and Japanese publics deserve to understand why and how.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


The Syrian Disconnect

It's not just that Americans don't want to go to war against Assad -- it's that they know America's not good at going to war anymore.

The longer the Syria debate goes on in the United States, the clearer and clearer it becomes that it is not about Syria at all. The American public is simply exhausted and has little or no appetite for yet another intervention, particularly one where it is self-evident that the commander in chief is at best a reluctant supporter.

Yet, there has been a recent rash of stories essentially complaining that the American public's leeriness toward a Syria intervention is somehow illegitimate. The Washington Post's chief art critic argued that Americans are simply too inured to images of violence against children and had grown uncaring. In those same pages, author Sebastian Junger insisted that Americans simply don't understand that force is needed to end such messy wars and that humanitarian interventions almost always go swimmingly well.

Yet, as someone who reluctantly supports an intervention in Syria, I believe firmly we need to be much more honest about the potential perils of such a course -- and in doing so give the American public far for more credit for its collective wisdom.

Most Americans, regardless of their political stripe, don't think we can get it right when it comes to the use of force or trying to reshape nations after an intervention, and that opinion is grounded in the hard realities of the past 12 years.

What is the average American taxpayer supposed to think when he or she is told that, by even the most conservative tally, the United States has already spent $657 billion in Afghanistan and $814 billion in Iraq? Credible estimates suggest that the two conflicts will cost the United States a combined $4 trillion to $6 trillion by the time they are done because of the high long-term costs of caring for wounded veterans. Bipartisan studies suggest that between $30 billion and $60 billion of U.S. funds in Iraq and Afghanistan have simply been lost, stolen, or wasted. Put another way, that's about $12 million going down the drain each day, every day, for a decade. In some cases, those lost funds have flowed directly to the same insurgents U.S. forces have battled on the ground.

But not only have we lost staggering sums of money in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression -- at a time when roads, schools, and worker training in the United States all desperately need investment. No, the losses have been much more personal. Some 4,486 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen were killed in Iraq; another 2,271 in Afghanistan. Another 50,000 have been wounded in those two wars. All told, some 1.5 million U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are still deployed in war zones or combat missions worldwide. And staggering numbers of Iraqis and Afghans have been killed since the invasions of their countries.

And what did all this achieve? Is Afghan President Hamid Karzai a worthwhile fruit of so much lost blood and treasure? Does anyone look at Iraq today and think we got it right?

The expert class has been quick to suggest that Afghanistan and Iraq are somehow anomalies, atypical U.S. interventions in the modern era.

But a closer look at other modern interventions makes clear that these are far less easy than billed. Libya today remains chaotic, and the American public is still mourning the loss of a U.S. ambassador killed in the aftermath of the successful effort to remove Muammar al-Qaddafi. U.S. military force was very effective in toppling the Libyan regime, but we are still trying to manage the aftershocks, including caches of weapons that have made their way all the way from Egypt to Mali and to Somalia.

Keeping the peace in Kosovo after the 1999 U.S. intervention required 50,000 NATO troops to effectively patrol an area the size of Tennessee, and more than 5,000 troops are still in place 14 years after the conflict. So it is no surprise that a Pew Research Center poll released Sept. 16 finds that the American public strongly backs the emerging deal on chemical weapons in Syria, yet has little faith that Syria will respect the deal -- and still remains opposed to a military strike on Damascus.

The American public seems to understand the bottom line. A few days of drone or missile strikes against Syria may offer some visceral satisfaction for punishing a tyrant, but those strikes would be unlikely to fundamentally change the situation on the ground. A more robust commitment to oust Bashar al-Assad would require an open-ended military commitment and necessitate peacekeepers on the ground when he fell. The risks of such a course are obviously immense.

The choices are messy and hard. It is fine to make a moral case for ending the slaughter in Syria, but the American public deserves some honesty at long last about how difficult it would all be. The days of telling Americans that they will be greeted with flowers in the streets as liberators have long since passed for Syria and beyond.

Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images