Kicking the Gulf War syndrome

Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel, in Tokyo for talks with Prime Minister Abe, has called on the DPJ to consent to Japan’s continuing its offshore participation in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

It’s about time that a leader of one of the dozens of countries in Afghanistan other than the US bothered to ask Japan to continue its contribution. Germany’s contingent, remember, is the third largest in the International Security Assistance Force, with personnel working in Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the north of Afghanistan and airplanes providing reconnaissance support. It has also suffered twenty-one deaths, eleven in combat (the Bundeswehr faces similiar restrictions to the JSDF when it comes to the use of force, but has used force to defend itself when attacked). And so bravo to Frau Merkel for providing a reminder that it’s not just about the US — but it’s probably too little, too late to avoid the impression that the MSDF contribution is simply a matter of the US-Japan alliance. NATO and other participating countries should have been making the argument from the beginning, instead of Ambassador Schieffer and experts back in Washington.

Meanwhile, the DPJ has announced that it is prepared to submit legislation in the forthcoming special session of the Diet that will provide for expanded civilian support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. I somehow doubt that the government will be satisfied with the DPJ’s alternative proposal, but then I see little practical reason why this wouldn’t be an adequate substitute, particularly if Japan put more people on the ground to work with PRTs in a civilian capacity. The idea is that Japan contribute and not shirk its international responsibilities; nowhere is it said that its contribution must come in martial form, especially considering the restrictions that come with a JSDF deployment.

Of course, this debate has little to do with the practical value of Japan’s contribution to Afghanistan. It is about symbolism: it is about the Japanese government’s being able to say to the world that Japan’s one-country pacifism is dead and gone. It concerns, in short, Japan’s “Gulf War syndrome” — the shame, referred to over and over again in the sixteen years since the Gulf War, of not being thanked by Kuwait because Japan only contributed money, and not personnel, and even then it was “too little, too late.” But arguably Japan made the point that it had changed in 2001 by reacting quickly to dispatch MSDF vessels to the Indian Ocean. Now, six years later, it is not inappropriate to ask if perhaps there is another way to contribute.

The DPJ may eventually consent to continuing the MSDF’s mission, but before consenting it is right to ask questions about the mission — and to call attention to the government’s slavishness to the US. Japanese security policy should not be held hostage to the need to prove and reprove Japan’s loyalty to the US, and the more the forthcoming debate calls attention to this problem, the better it will be for Japan over the long term.

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