Tagged: foreign policy

What Does Shinzo Abe Mean For Japan?

In this year’s general election, voters in the land of the rising sun chose from a field of nine eminently qualified candidates. The incumbent, Yoshihiko Noda, was elected in 2011. His primary challengers were Shinzo Abe, who served as Prime Minister between 2006 and 2007, and Shintaro Ishihara, an aging nationalist who served as Governor of Tokyo from 1999 until October of this year.

Abe won in a landslide, the second-biggest in Japanese history. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) swept 294 of 480 seats in the Japanese House of Representatives, while Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) lost three-quarters of its seats in the Diet’s lower house, ending up with only 57. Ishihara’s brand-new Restoration Party won 54 seats, 11.25% of the total.

There are three issues of central importance in Japan today. The first is the dilemma of nuclear energy: after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in March 2011, Japanese society experienced a severe backlash against nuclear power and all but two of the country’s 54 nuclear power plants remain offline. The second topic is the failing economy: Japan has experienced persistent deflation for much of the last decade, as well as an upsettingly strong yen and and low overall growth. The third and most ominous matter is that of Japan’s rising tensions with China. This year has been marked by a series of heated altercations over the various disputed islands and shoals of the South China Sea; the People’s Republic has evidently decided to crookedly hopscotch its way to regional dominion.

Abe will contend with all of these issues and much more as he takes office, although it is not at all clear that he will have the opportunity to do so for long. Indeed, Japan has gone through five Prime Ministers in five years.

Under Yoshihiko Noda’s DPJ, nuclear power was to have been slowly phased out by the 2030s. With the election of Shinzo Abe and the resurgent dominance of the LDP, it seems likely that Japan’s leaders will move cautiously to restart the nation’s nuclear infrastructure: the planned atomic suspension would have impaired Japan’s economy, increasing electricity costs and reliance on fossil fuels. Like many of the world’s elections over the past five years, Japan’s general election was in many respects a referendum on the economy, and it is telling that not even widespread angst and anxiety about the safety of Japan’s nuclear power plants was enough to override economic worries.

After the collapse of the late-1980s asset-price bubble, Japan’s government ran huge deficits in an ultimately futile attempt to pluck the economy from its doldrums. As the 2000s began, with asset prices continuing to fall and insolvent banks unable to lend, the country experienced severe deflation. To date, efforts by Japan’s central bank to combat this phenomenon have mostly failed: while Japan has the lowest interest rates in the developed world, the yen is still overvalued (partly as a result of investors’ flight to the “safe haven” yen after the 2008 recession). This latter circumstance has made Japanese goods expensive for domestic consumers, and imported goods cheap; Japan has been running a trade deficit for nearly two years.

Abe seems likely to push for a more stringent regime of quantitative easing (QE) to fight deflation, having pledged both to urge the Bank of Japan to pursue more aggressive reflation measures and to pass a budget featuring a healthy dose of federal stimulus. There is not much else he can do. Japan has historically had a very high personal savings rate, a state of historical affairs that has likely contributed to the economy’s present regrettable state. The yen lost some value with Abe’s election; if this is evidence of public confidence in his ability to speed repair of the economy, there is hope yet.

Shinzo Abe is also an unapologetic nationalist, an heir to a political family who has spent a more-than-standard amount of time trivializing and playing down Japan’s wartime atrocities. He quite clearly sees himself as a hardliner and a defense hawk, having long sought to broaden the definition of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which dictates that Japan’s military must be a strictly defensive force.

As he takes office, Abe is faced with a confrontational North Korea and an expansionist China. This year’s dispute over the Senkaku Islands—to which China lays claim, although it calls them the Diaoyu Islands—was largely precipitated by Shintaro Ishihara, Abe’s electoral opponent in the recent election. It was Ishihara’s offer to buy the islands on behalf of Japan that caused the uproar in the first place. Abe has spoken menacingly of Japan’s claim on the Senkakus; this, combined with his hopes for Article 9 and his proposals to increase defense spending, has some worried.

It does not seem likely that military conflict will erupt over the Senkakus. China and Japan conduct nearly $300 billion of trade every year. The number-one recipient of Japanese exports is China; Chinese products are Japan’s most-imported and Japanese products are China’s most-imported. It is this mercantile intertwinement that will save the South China Sea from war, and from Shinzo Abe’s martial yet largely rhetorical machinations.

-Mattathias Lerner


The Nonexistent Drone Rulebook

Last week, the New York Times published a piece revealing that the Obama administration, prior to this year’s presidential election, sought to develop a set of explicit rules for the use of armed drones. In the article, an administration figure suggests that this push—really a temporary nudge, as it turns out—reflected fears that President Obama’s successors might not wield the drone program with the same discipline and circumspection as has the President.

In the eyes of the American left and the global mainstream, the drone program has not, of course, been deployed with any sort of perspicacity. Pakistani cricketer-cum-politician Imran Khan has ably harnessed public outrage over the U.S.’s ongoing drone campaign in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Regions (FATA) to reinforce support for his political party, Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf. The Pew Research Center found that global attitudes toward the drone war are predominantly negative, with disapproval reaching rates as high as 89% in Egypt and 90% in Greece. In the U.S., where opposition is minimal as compared with other countries, a public debate nevertheless continues with regard to the legality and indeed the morality of drones.

The first recorded use of an armed drone in a targeted killing occurred on February 4, 2002, when the CIA succeeded in executing a “tall man” later identified as Daraz Khan, aged 31, along with two companions. Unfortunately, those directing the drone failed in another respect: they had misidentified Khan, a local villager, as Osama bin Laden.

The armed drone debuted in its most prevalent and least popular capacity—that is, outside a recognized war zone–in Yemen on November 3rd, 2002. On that day, an RQ-1 Predator operated by the CIA discharged a Hellfire missile in a successful effort to dispatch Abu Ali al-Harithi, an Al Qaeda operative and one of the architects of 2000’s U.S.S. Cole bombing. Liquidated alongside al-Harithi was Ahmed Hijazi, an Al Qaeda recruiter, as well as four unidentified Yemenis.

Hijazi was a naturalized U.S. citizen and, like the four nameless passengers also riding with al-Harithi, he was collateral damage.

Since that first lethal attack, the vast majority of drone strikes have been conducted in Pakistan’s tribal regions, where the CIA and special operations forces are waging an undeclared war against Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. The New America Foundation reports that since 2004, drones have killed between 1932 and 3176 people in 337 attacks. Between 1487 and 2595 of these were militants. While the non-militant casualty rate is lately down from its 2006 high of 60%, the drone program remains overwhelmingly unpopular.

A September 2012 study found that the civilian toll of the CIA’s Pakistani drone operations extends well beyond the not-so-simple fact of collateral damage. The inexplicably callous tactic of the “double tap”, in which drones return to inflict additional casualties on those who have flocked to the scene of a completed strike, has ensured that Pakistani rescuers are now deterred from assisting the victims of drone attacks, militant and non-militant alike.

The study also chronicled the psychological trauma suffered by populations living in drone-infested areas. To imagine living in a place where homes and automobiles are periodically obliterated without warning is to imagine the terror and stress of living in Pakistan’s border regions, under constant threat of death by Hellfire missiles.

The apparent goal of the CIA’s war in the Pakistani tribal areas is to liquidate the Pakistani Taliban and to extirpate the remnants of Al Qaeda’s leadership in the region. This is a noble goal, and were it possible to neutralize each and every one of these savage theocrats with the push of a button and without the death of innocents, the imperative to do so would be clear. Indeed, half of this wish has been a reality for the last decade: it is possible to kill with the push of a button, but it seems the hand hovering above this button is capricious and shortsighted.

Perhaps the single most damning feature of the drone program, speaking in strictly practical terms, is the inflation of target value. As many as 94% of those targeted and killed by CIA drones are low-level fighters; less than 2% are so-called “high value targets”. The deployment of a resource as robust as the Hellfire missile in pursuit of easily replaceable local pawns hardly seems worthwhile. It is more than possible that the replacement rate for ordinary militiamen must approach 100%, particularly in a culture for which revenge is a major moral pillar. It also seems likely that the inimical conditions being cavalierly nurtured by the constant presence of armed drones in the skies over Waziristan are precisely those that abet the development of extremism.

Suppose drones have killed 2000 low-level militants. Suppose, for the sake of this back-of-the-envelope calculation, that each of these have been replaced. Suppose as well that the conduct of the drone war and the terror which it evidently instills in the people of FATA have generated just 100 new militants. This scenario yields a replacement rate of 105%: the drone war here has in fact generated new Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

If this seems implausible, consider what this war looks like in the bigger picture. The U.S.’s main enemy is not terrorists—not disaffected or unbalanced young men eager to vent their stored aggression or achieve the rewards of an imaginary paradise. America’s, and indeed civilization’s enemy is the ideology that molds these young men into bloodthirsty, psychopathic ideologues. The jihadist creeds that transform common thugs into genocidal terrorists create imaginary enemies—the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, for example—but they truly thrive when given the opportunity to indicate a real event as the source of their grievance. America’s drone war has for ten years been a gift to jihadist propagandists—one that seems to have yielded few concrete results beyond international censure.

The unspoken assumption of any war is that the civilian casualties sustained in its course are outweighed by the lives saved by its successful outcome. This might be a possibility in Waziristan were the CIA’s drone program restricted to high-value targets; indeed, documents recovered from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound seem to reveal that drones were at one point eliminating senior Al Qaeda figures faster than they could be replaced. But there is little utility in guiding Hellfire missiles toward foot soldiers, particularly at the risk of killing innocents as well. If a strike aimed at a low-value militant also kills an innocent bystander, the strike constitutes nothing beyond the murder of a civilian (due to the replaceability of such a soldier). This is a phenomenon to which the world is not blind.

The development of a rulebook for drone strikes—a set of legal standards beyond the technocratic aggrandizement of the Administration’s “disposition matrix”–might contribute some moral authority to the program, to say nothing of practical value. As of now, the utility of drones, as well as the morality of their deployment, is sabotaged by their liberal overuse, by an inexplicable lack of transparency and accountability in the program, and by the seeming lack of any concrete strategy whatsoever. It is an urgent matter.

-Mattathias Lerner

Snippet: Human Shields

The argument was put to me recently that Hamas’s tactic of concealing itself and its rocket launchers amidst civilian populations makes itself, and not the IDF, the real murderer of Gazan children. By this narrative, Israeli airstrikes are the necessary instruments of a fatal circumstance orchestrated wholly by Hamas; when Palestinians are killed in a strike aimed at a Hamas position, it is thus as if they were killed at Hamas’s own hand.

Here is the inimitable Alan Dershowitz, putting the issue his way:

“Although Israel goes to great efforts to reduce civilian casualties, the Hamas tactic is designed to maximize them. The international community and the media must understand this and begin to blame Hamas, rather than Israel, for the Palestinian civilians who are killed by Israeli rockets but whose deaths are clearly part of the Hamas tactic.”

It must be noted that this is an accurate account of Hamas’s strategy. But the assessment—that Hamas, by placing these people in harm’s way, bears full responsibility for their deaths—is off the mark.

This is a view that fully disregards the agency of the Israeli generals. Israel’s military leaders do have a choice: even if it were true that the options on the table were to indiscriminately bomb Gaza or to suffer complete annihilation, they would in no way be compelled to do the former. IDF bombs are not the instruments of fate. If Hamas were to believably threaten Israel with utter destruction, Israel would bear at least some small grain of responsibility for the casualties suffered in its justifiable response.

Factually speaking, however, Israel is not facing complete annihilation at the hands of Hamas. The choices the IDF makes are the result of some combination of dogma and cost-benefit analysis; there is agency here, and Israel’s response is neither preordained nor automatic. The same is true of the manner in which it does ultimately respond. Is every airstrike necessary? This is doubtful. Likewise, unintended civilian casualties are still casualties; the IDF does not get credit for good intentions.

Thus Israel must bear at least some of the responsibility for these deaths. What does it matter if 51% of the blame falls on Hamas’s shoulders? Does the 49% role Israel plays in the death of a Gazan innocent pale in comparison to the utility of the airstrike that kills her? It is unlikely that it does in every case, nor even in most. While Hamas clearly holds the blame for the inflation of casualties, the choice to fall into this trap is not in any respect predestined—-the choice in every instance lies with Israel.

-Mattathias Lerner