Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to the Middle East spurred criticism from the opposition and some opinion leaders, as ISIS broadcasted videos of killing two Japanese hostages worldwide on the Internet (“ISIS Says It Has Killed 2nd Japanese Hostage”; New York Times; January 31, 2015), when Abe declared to donate a $200 million humanitarian aid to the Middle East, and stand against prevailing terrorism in this region ("The Best Way Is to Go in the Middle"; Speech by Prime Minister Abe; January 18, 2015). According to the poll by the Japan News Network, 55% of the Japanese public see the timing of Abe’s visit to the Middle East was inappropriate (“55% Say Abe’s Middle East Visit Inappropriate”; TBS News; February 9, 2015).
However, it is too superficial to relate the hostage killing and Abe’s $200 million aid speech in Egypt and his subsequent visit to Israel. The real objective of terrorists is to agitate fears among the public, and demonstrate their presence, according to a New York based writer Sawako Yasuda. I agree with her, because I believe that it was media criticism to George W Bush that drew anti-American terrorists to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Criticism to Abe blamers also comes from the Arab side. Palestinian Ambassador to Japan Waleed Siam, who is the Dean of the Council of Arab Ambassadors in Tokyo, condemned ISIS and defended Abe (“Rising Voices against Blaming Abe”; J-CAST News; February 2, 2015).
Though the murder of two hostages imperiled Japanese people, Japan needs to secure its own national interest by departing from postwar omnidirectional diplomacy. Japan is losing confidence in Obama’s America, as Obama himself remarked that the United States was no longer the world policeman. If that is the case, Japan has to do something more involved to stabilize the Middle East as a core member of democratic nations. Otherwise, Japan cannot sustain its economy, because it is so dependent on Middle East oil (“A tipping point for Japan’s foreign policy”; Financial Times; January 28, 2015 or here). The problem is beyond Japan’s self-restricted narrow national interest. The Japan Forum on International Relations, a leading think tank advocating proactive pacifism of the Abe administration, issues the 37th policy recommendation to endorse Japan’s departure from postwar “One Country Pacifism”, in order to get actively involved in buttressing the liberal world order.
The focal point of this recommendation is neither re-militalization nor the quest for great power status of Japan, but founding a real “global no-war regime” by suppressing threats to world peace (“Positive Pacifism and Japan's Course of Action”; Japan Forum on International Relations; August 2014). Abe’s initiative of civilian aid to displaced people around Iraq and Syria is an action to put the concept of positive or proactive pacifism into practice. The advent of ISIS is a grave challenge that could dissolve current Westphalian system as it strives for establishing a global caliphate of fanaticism and terrorism. That will endanger the vital foundation of Japan’s peace, prosperity, and national welfare. Regardless of the partisanship of Nagatacho politics, it is Japan’s interest to suppress threats in the Middle East.
Despite that, some Japanese blame the timing of Abe’s Middle East tour, as they firmly believe that his diplomatic schedule was so reckless as to provoke ISIS to kill Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa. It is extremely tragic that our fellow citizens were so brutally murdered. However, I would argue that Abe seized the opportunity to visit the Middle East and address Japan’s global engagement. That serves the public interest of the world, but those who denounce him give hardly any consideration to this. I am not hailing Shinzo Abe. I am critically concerned with Barack Obama’s horrible mismanagement in the Middle East, as I frequently and repeatedly argue on this blog. American allies, including Japan must take any action to make up for his blunder.
The foremost reason that allowed ISIS to vandalize and imperil the Middle East is the failure of Obama’s Iraq policy. This is typically indicated in frequent change of the Secretary of Defense in his administration. From Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, to Chuck Hagel, criticized Obama’s disengagement with Iraq. Even former Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy, who joined Obama’s team so early during the transition period, left the administration along with Panetta, and refused to accept the job offer after Hagel. The power vacuum by Obama’s premature pullout from Iraq has made the problem extremely complex. While most of the experts and opinion leaders focus on the axis of Sunni extremists and ex-Baathists in Syria and western Iraq, Shiite jihadists in southern Iraq and Levant are no less formidable as Iran sponsors them. Too many opinion leaders assume as if it were an equation of only one unknown x. They dismiss another unknown y in this equation, which is Iran’s influence.
How should we solve such a complicated equation? It is very risky to deploy Kurdish and Shiite militias in the same place, just to fight against ISIS, because sectarian killings by those militias are reported (“U.S.-backed Iraqi forces face risky urban warfare in battle against Islamic State”; Washington Post; February 8, 2015). In addition to local Shiites in southern Iraq, Iran sponsors Shiite proxies in Syria to defend the Assad administration. According to Phillip Smyth, Researcher of the University of Maryland, their influx into Syria is nothing to imply spontaneous Shiite unity, but to indicate highly organized geostrategic and ideological plots by Iran. There is already Hezbollah in Lebanon that Iran has been supporting since overthrowing the shah. In addition, Iraqi Shiite group Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas joins the civil war in Syria. Like ISIS, Iran recruits volunteers by Facebook. That is particularly targeted for Afghan Shiites living in Iran. The Revolutionary Guard of Iran makes such an extensive network to look for insurgents. The negative influence that Iran can exert is bigger than commonly thought (“The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects”; Washington Institute for Near East Policy – Policy Focus 138; February 2015). Despite those so many concerns, Obama is extremely naïve as to believe that Iran would play a constructive role in Iraq and Syria, if the West admitted nuclear infrastructure and rightful position in the Middle East for them. Even Democrat Senator Bob Menendez and Obama’s long term ally Senator Tom Kaine oppose such a daydream about Iran (“Obama’s fight with his own party over foreign policy”; Washington Post; February 1, 2015). Smyth suggests that the West interdict online propagandas and recruitments of both ISIS and Shite jihadists in the Policy Focus, but that is just the beginning.
In order to explore how America should manage these dual enemies, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy held a panel discussion on February 11. Michael Knights, Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute, and Phillip Smyth, the University of Maryland, presented strategic overviews and suggested policy directions. Their debates were concluded by P. J. Dermer, retired Army Colonel. To begin with, Knights told that the war against ISIS is winnable in a few years, but the clash by Shiite proxies with the Kurds and the Iraqi central government can disunify Iraq. Also, Baghdad worries that Shiites would take over their country, if the coalition is too dependent on Iran. Therefore, he insisted that the United States and coalition members must outperform Iran in this war. Otherwise, Iraq will fall into Iran’s satellite state, and the United States will lose a vital regional partner. Iranian influence in the Levant region is another problem. As Shiite militias secure Assad’s rule in Syria, their presence will pose threats to Israel over Golan Heights, and to Iraq over the north western borders. Therefore, Smyth warns that Iran would expand its sphere of influence from the Levant to the Persian Gulf. In view of complexity to deal with ISIS and Iran at the same time, Dermmer concluded that the biggest challenge for the United States will be making Iraq as a stable and lasting partner after defeating ISIS. See the video below.
I am somewhat bewildered to hear their discussion, because it sounds as if they admitted Obama’s approach to ask Iran for help to defeat ISIS, while America faces tough negotiations on nuclear disarmament with Tehran. I am critically afraid that Obama’s appeasement will make Iran overconfident as America appears weak for them. Remember that Retired Army General Jack Keane told that Iran was not interested in stability in Iraq as long as their influence was solidified by Shiite militias at the conversation with Senator John McCain at the American Enterprise Institute on June 18 last year.
Considering the points raised thus far, I believe that Abe’s $200 million aid plan was addressed exactly at the right time to dwarf the shadow of Iran, while the coalition fights against ISIS. Japanese media failed to mention this. Abe himself or Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida should have told this boldly in public, to promote awareness and understanding of the threat of Islamic extremism among the Japanese public and intellectuals. Japan took absolutely necessary action to relieve both Israel and Arab nations from the threat of Iran and make up for Obama’s fatal error to allow their involvement in this war. This is exactly a response to put proactive pacifism into practice. Why so many quibbles in Nagatacho and among the media?
In view of such security threats, Abe seized the best opportunity to visit the Middle East. The beheadings of Goto and Yukawa were horrible, and I would like to give my heartfelt condolences to them. But in my impression, those who blame Abe for their death are excessively emotional, and simply make use of this occasion to attack him. The problem is not whether to like Abe or not. We need an overview to think of Japan’s contribution to Middle East stability. America and Europe have been engaged to sweep out terrorists in the region for a long time, and Japan is the last major democracy to have additional leverage to suppress socioeconomic instability that nurtures ISIS and Shiite jihadists. Abe visited Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, and all the four arrange tight diplomatic schedules to meet the Japanese Prime Minister, regardless of the regime, state recognition, ethnicity, religion, and so forth. Even the god cannot stop anyone from disliking Abe, and do as they like. But to my regret, most of those who blame Abe’s visit spoke from old passive pacifism that Japan be detached from US-led coalition without showing the vision of the Middle East, which is so isolationist and outmoded in this century.
In addition, I would like to express my anger to widespread anti-Semitism among Japanese opinion leaders. They argued that Abe was too reckless to trigger Arab anger to visit Israel when Japanese hostages were killed. That is utterly wrong. The Palestinian Authority welcomed Abe’s visit to Israel, along with themselves. More importantly, Israel is a de facto ally to Gulf Arabs against Iran’s threat of nuclear weapons and Shiite proxies. From these perspectives, I wonder why so many intellectuals and citizens in Japan lapse so easily into anti-Israeli views, although both countries share common values and interests in global security. The joint press conference by Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Shinzo Abe on January 21 was nothing anti-Arab nor anti-Islam. Netanyahu stressed the global peril of nuclear proliferation to Iran and North Korea, and subsequent leak to terrorists. Meanwhile, Abe talked about terrorism and bilateral relations, and also stressed that Japan would endorse the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a friend to both actors. See the video below.
While opponents regard Abe’s visit to Israel as further blind followership to the United States, he is more realist to pursue Japan’s independent interest and presence in the Middle East. By deepening relations with Israel while maintaining ties with Palestine, Abe seeks more Japanese influence there (“Shinzo Abe Raising Japan's Profile by Engaging the Middle East”; Economy Watch; 11 February, 2015). Many Japanese people were so shocked to hear the murder news that they reacted hastily to relate the tragedy to Israel, and some of them even talked as if this country was the root of all evils. But we are the nation of humanist Sempo Sugihara, not racist murder Adolph Hitler. Hopefully, the Special Government Assessment Committee headed by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita (“EDITORIAL: Review of Middle East policies best way to assess handling of hostage crisis”; Asahi Shimbun;February 12, 2015) wipe out such poorly grounded anti-Semitism instead of Israel, when they review the hostage crisis.
Also, we must understand the nature of Islamic extremism. Even if Japan had appeased, ISIS would have killed them. Extremists kill even their fellow Muslims. Why bother to kill kafirs? There is a widespread misunderstanding that Japan not be involved in the Islam-West clash of civilizations. That is utterly wrong. Christians and Jews are not the only people whom Islamic extremists antagonize throughout the history. They wiped out Buddhism in India, and destroyed Gautama Siddhartha’s sacred birth place. Remember, how Taliban treated the Japanese delegation scornfully when they made a plea to stop bombing the Buddhas of Bamyan. Nor is it right for Japan to stay away from the US-led coalition, because they even killed Russians (“ISIS video claims to show boy executing two men accused of being Russian spies”; CNN News; January 15, 2015). The foremost points we must bear in mind are their bigoted ideology and lunacy. As historical evidence indicates, Islamic extremists are intolerant of moderate Muslims and people of other religion. Today, they are more radicalized and violent due to their devotion to Salafism, the most doctrinaire sect of Sunni that legitimizes killing of innocent people.
We must understand complicated security interactions in the Middle East and the nature of Islamic extremism. Finally, I would suggest that the global community make an international protocol to defend the life of journalists and aid workers from terrorists in combat areas. They may not be willing to follow instructions by the government, because they value independence from the authority. However, terrorists use their courageous devotion to the job, by kidnapping and killing them to horrify the world. Therefore, the government of each sovereign state must show the guideline to journalists and aid workers how to avoid getting involved in dangers in the War on Terror area. It is more important to prevent the crisis, rather than saving hostages captured by terrorists. Once captured, there are virtually no ways to liberate hostages from terrorists.