The Cable

Did Obama bring down Hatoyama?

As Asia hands gawk at the news that Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has resigned, there is a lot of talk that the Obama administration contributed to his downfall by refusing to give ground on the issue of how to move the Futenma air station, a regionally important but locally unpopular U.S. Marine air base ...

As Asia hands gawk at the news that Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has resigned, there is a lot of talk that the Obama administration contributed to his downfall by refusing to give ground on the issue of how to move the Futenma air station, a regionally important but locally unpopular U.S. Marine air base in Okinawa.

The Washington Note’s Steve Clemons was among the first to put blame squarely on Obama, not just for failing to show flexibility in reaction to Hatoyama’s attempts to alter the 2006 base deal, which was signed by a previous Japanese government, but also because of the arms-length attitude the U.S. president displayed personally toward his Japanese counterpart.

"Barack Obama put huge pressure on Hatoyama, asking him ‘Can I trust you?’ He has maintained an icy posture towards Hatoyama, hardly communicating with him or agreeing to meetings – making the Prime Minister ‘lose face,’" Clemons wrote.

It’s true that Obama and senior administration officials had sour relations with Hatoyama at the highest levels. But on the working levels, U.S. officials insist, there actually was a determined effort to resolve the dispute over the base in a way that both sides could defend domestically.

Those efforts included giving Hatoyama’s government eight months to figure out how to come around to accepting the bulk of the U.S. proposal and offering him some flexibility so that he could argue to Okinawans that their concerns had been addressed.

But in end, the Obama administration sees Hatoyama’s downfall as one of his own making, because he failed to manage the expectations of his electorate while also piling on with domestic scandals galore. U.S. officials are hoping the next Japanese prime minister has learned that demonizing the trans-Pacific alliance is a losing proposition.

Behind the scenes, there was another dynamic at play. Hatoyama was trying to reorient the private interactions between Tokyo and Washington, seeking to break what he saw as a stranglehold on the relationship by a select number of Washington Japan hands and their allies both in the former ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and within his own Democratic Party of Japan. He also sought to develop closer ties to China, a prospect many in Washington viewed with concern, albeit tempered with confidence that Beijing would ultimately prove an unworkable partner for Tokyo.

Hatoyama sent envoys, such as Sen. Kuniko Tanioka, to Washington to try to create alternate channels of communication. But those efforts were neither coordinated nor skilled enough to have real traction.

Meanwhile, the Japan hands who have been managing the alliance for decades engaged the Hatoyama government, but still kept up their strong contacts with their LDP and DPJ friends who had a more conventional view of the relationship.

"The DPJ ascendance was a symbol of the changing Japan," said Mindy Kotler, director of Asia Policy Point, a Japan-focused non-governmental organization. "The problem in Washington is that there is LDP nostalgia. We should be focused on building up this new generation and we should be more supportive of a more equal relationship between Japan and U.S."

Kotler said that the Obama administration didn’t intentionally undermine Hatoyama, but didn’t help him much either.

"There’s no reason they couldn’t have been more flexible and giving him more political space on Okinawa," she said. "They did a terrible public relations job of explaining that the U.S. military does actually contribute there."

Obama administration officials emphatically stress that a vibrant, two-party democracy in Japan, as represented by the success of the DPJ, is in U.S. interests. But they don’t want the U.S.-Japan alliance to be the political football that Japanese politicians kick around as they jostle for domestic positioning.

As for Hatoyama himself, many in Washington are perfectly happy to see him go. He is likely to be replaced by Naoto Kan, the current finance minister. Kan is not exactly a champion of the U.S. alliance, but analysts say he may cede national-security issues to Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, who is highly regarded.

"The Obama administration played it right because they got the agreement, Hatoyama is gone, and we’ll get a new leader who is better on this issue and will be ready to move on to other issues," said Daniel Twining, senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund.

Kotler argues that whether or not the Okinawa issue is actually resolved, the Japanese political atmosphere will continue to change, and the U.S. approach to Japan must change with it.

"It’s a pyrrhic victory and there’s still lack of demonstrated understanding that there has been change in Japan," she said. "The overall problem has not gone away."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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