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Has Japan softened Rahm Emanuel? Not likely

TOKYO — Despite 8,000 miles and a 14-hour time difference, the chaos of Washington is never that far away for U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel.

The day-to-day responsibilities in Tokyo are made all the more complicated with Republican stonewalling of U.S. aid for Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific; Japanese anxiety over former President Trump’s momentum toward the Republican presidential nomination; and American efforts to counter threats from Russia, China and North Korea. 

“The question I get based on my background and experience … will the Congress measure up to the responsibilities the United States has to this moment?” Emanuel said in an interview with The Hill late last month from the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Tokyo.

There’s little doubt that the majority of Congress supports Ukraine, but Japanese officials often ask Emanuel how to explain the delay to get a vote on President Biden’s $95 billion national security supplemental — an action that House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) intends to push until after government spending bills are completed.  

“This thing is going to — like a hot knife through butter — pass,” Emanuel said while smacking his hands for emphasis. 

“It’s not about whether you’re going to get to 218 — you’re going to get to 290, you’re going to get to 300 — it’s how do you get the bill to the floor?” he said, before adding, “Without going into a witness protection program.”

But given how increased partisanship is throwing working order into disarray, can the United States be counted on by its allies and partners? 

“People are watching this, and they’re taking measure,” he said. “At the end of the day, it will get done. It’s a fair question, but I can’t answer — it’s a hypothetical.”

A veteran Washington insider — serving three Democratic presidents; terms as an Illinois congressman with leadership roles; and former mayor of Chicago — Emanuel holds a reputation as a high-energy political operative with a penchant for profane, or at least, colorful language.

As former President Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel kept on his desk a nameplate reading “Undersecretary for Go F— Yourself.”

From Tokyo, Emanuel triggered a small diplomatic crisis in September by posting on X — formerly Twitter — snarky comments reacting to the disappearance of China’s foreign minister and defense minister.  A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson described the posts as “smearing” China.

Emanuel’s confrontational style could seem at odds with Japan’s typically orderly and polite society. 

“I can be tone-deaf sometimes,” he said, responding to a question of whether his time spent in Japan has affected his personality. 

“Maybe I’ve impacted everybody else’s personality,” he says with a laugh. 

“I’ve been here for two years; for Japan, it’s probably felt like 20. I don’t think anyone here thought a human being could operate at this tempo.”

Has Emanuel discussed with his Japanese counterparts U.S. intelligence surrounding a Russian nuclear space threat? “Yes,” was his one-word answer, and he motioned to move on to the next topic. 

At the moment, Emanuel is deep in preparations for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s state visit to Washington on April 10. That is expected to be a major milestone in the Biden administration’s grand strategy for the Indo-Pacific — deepening America’s most important bilateral ties in the region and then linking them together, multilaterally, as a counterweight to China’s power and ambitions.

Kishida’s state visit follows his trip to the U.S. in August for a historic trilateral summit at Camp David with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol — an achievement in easing historically tense ties between Tokyo and Seoul. 

“When Camp David happened, just to narrow it down to its most basic: That wasn’t a day that China ever wanted to see happen,” Emanuel said, reflecting on some of the work he’s been most proud of during his two and a half years in the country. 

Emanuel gestures toward a room off the residence’s library where our interview takes place and talks about an August 2022 meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and then-National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell, mapping the steps needed to carry out the Biden administration’s goals for the region, to get to Camp David. 

“A lot of people participated, most importantly the president of the United States,” he said.

Is that work at risk of unraveling if former President Trump, on his way to clinching the Republican presidential nomination, succeeds in the November election? 

“You walk away from it, you’re walking away from a major, major strategic advantage to the United States,” Emanuel said. “Korea, Japan, with the United States has a vision — will it survive? I do think it will survive.” 

Trump had a more positive relationship with Japan during his administration compared with the contempt he had for Europe, but he still pursued transactional policies that flew in the face of conventional U.S.-Japanese relations. 

“Could it unravel? Anything can unravel. But it’s getting close to fundamental to all three countries’ operational capacity,” Emanuel added. 

Japanese officials and experts agree that work is being done by both sides to “institutionalize” cooperation between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul to protect against changes of governments in any of the countries, with a recognition that close security ties are a fundamental counter to threats from China and North Korea, in particular. 

“It’s quite important for us to keep [South] Korea in our circle,” a Japanese defense official told The Hill. 

Emanuel is careful to show he is focused on the task at hand and won’t answer questions on his ambitions post-ambassadorship. His first choice for a position in the Biden administration was reportedly for secretary of Transportation. 

“Why don’t we just leave that, I’m not going to answer that question. I’ve got my work to do … when the time’s right, we’ll figure out the answer to that question.” 

With a 14-hour time difference, there’s a small window where Washington and Tokyo can communicate during working hours. Emanuel ticks off his call log in the mornings — Biden’s chief of staff Jeff Zients, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, a call with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), emailing with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. 

Emanuel reflected that with such accessibility, Washington doesn’t feel that far away, but with 8,000 miles, “you have a different perspective, what I refer to as ‘Disneyland on the Potomac.’”

He’s getting some perspective being so far away from the day-to-day grind of Washington, reflecting on the hard, partisan battles of trying to pass health care or raise the minimum wage during the Obama administration — what he described as “putting your brave heart paint on and going to battle.”  

“It just looks different from 8,000 miles away,” he said. 

“I think it was a unique gift I was given, I got a chance to spend a length of time in a country that I was familiar with but did not know. I say it kind of — not flippantly — I came, I saw and I fell in love.”

The writer traveled to Japan at the expense of the Foreign Press Center Japan, a nonprofit foundation that receives funding from the Japanese government. The interview with the U.S. ambassador to Japan was arranged independently from the FPCJ. 

Source: The Hill

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