Japan's Koizumi faces a 'Tony Blair bind' on Iraq

Over the weekend, thousands rallied in Hiroshima against a US-led war.

When Junichiro Koizumi got an apology from Kim Jong Il last September, his popularity soared. What a change. In July, some had predicted Japan's prime minister wouldn't last the fall. But the bold initiative to normalize with old nemesis North Korea gave Mr. Koizumi stature; it helped that he brought back five Japanese kidnap victims, instant celebrities whose every waking thought made headlines in the Japanese press for months.

Yet Japan's youthful reformer is again facing trouble - over Iraq.

From Day 1, Japanese have politely opposed a US go-it-alone policy on regime change in Baghdad. Japan helped finance Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and made history by offering naval support in Afghanistan. But Tokyo is unlikely to send a single boat or yen to support US military action against Saddam Hussein, with or without a UN resolution. It is more likely to join a coalition of those willing to help fund reconstruction afterward.

Antiwar feelings run deep here: 80 percent are opposed to a war. That leaves Koizumi facing a political bind that British Prime Minister Tony Blair might appreciate, analysts say.

If Koizumi backs the US side on Iraq, particularly without a UN resolution, he aligns himself with an old guard in his party that, as a proclaimed reformer, he has tried to distance himself from. He also risks public displeasure.

If Koizumi plays to the polls and the nation's antiwar feeling, he will displease powerful factions in his party, not to mention the Americans who would like support from major allies.

Though Koizumi is a member of the powerful Liberal Democratic Party, Japan's main party, his faction within that group is very small. He would be more vulnerable should his popularity fall too far, say analysts.

Still, they add, Koizumi has been hurt not by a pro- or antiwar stance, but by waffling attempts in recent weeks to have it both ways. Koizumi's "double-standard," as the media here call it, reached an apogee several weeks ago when, in New York, the Japanese ambassador to the UN suggested that no further inspections were needed. On the same day in the Japanese Diet, or parliament, foreign-ministry officials implied that inspections should run their course.

"After the Pyongyang visit, Koizumi recovered his political life, and he is still above 50 percent," says Minoru Morita, a respected political analyst in Tokyo. "But with a double standard on Iraq, he is at a crossroads. Will he take a national stance, or support the US? It hurts him politically to do both."

The mixed signals do not play well with the public. "What we don't like is that he [Koizumi] is not explaining anything," says a young female Tokyo musician. "We don't know what he believes."

Interest in Iraq has been building in recent weeks. Antiwar protests have not reached the street-flooding sizes found in Europe, Australia, or the US. But the UN drama over inspections, and Security Council trysts between France and the US, have penetrated this island's typical preoccupation with things Japanese.

As in most Asian nations heavily dependent on imported oil, ministers here worry that a prolonged war will jack the price of crude to as high as $60 a barrel, from $40, at a time when the economy is still in a doldrums.

For Koizumi to back a messy and unpopular war that gouges the yen and is costly involves a political risk.

What is expected is that Japan will take an ambiguous position, especially if the US does not secure UN backing,; Tokyo will express support for the concerns of a close ally, but will be quiet when the bombing starts.

What may cost Koizumi, say analysts like Mr. Morita, is that he is not being a Tony Blair. While Mr. Blair is speaking and acting out of conviction, despite the political consequences, Morita points out, Koizumi is not.

"He should have gone to the voters early and just told them, 'this is what we should do.' " Morita says. "Now he looks indecisive."

"In my head, Koizumi is doing the right thing by keeping the US alliance strong," says Masako Morikawa, a housewife in Tokyo and mother of two. "In my heart, I don't want force used in Iraq if there is no imminent threat."

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