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Opinion

Keep Rahm Emanuel as far away from Tokyo as possible

Joe Biden should urgently rethink his choice for ambassador to Japan

| Japan
Rahm Emanuel, pictured in August 2019: Emanuel has been gunning for a top job in Biden's White House.   © Getty Images

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

Joe Biden, it seems fair to say, had Yoshihide Suga at Konnichiwa.

The pained bromance between their predecessors -- U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- had all the hallmarks of an abusive relationship: Trump as bully; Abe as helpless subjugate.

Enter foreign-policy-fluent Biden, who envisions a monumentally different dynamic. Biden understands that, in the age of China, Washington needs Tokyo just as much as Suga's Liberal Democratic Party needs America. This tonal pivot ensures Biden will not extort Tokyo for billions of dollars in protection money, Trump-style. Nor will Biden hector Suga to nominate him for Nobel Prizes or wreck Japan's economy with trade wars.

But what, oh what, is Biden thinking by tapping Rahm Emanuel, of all people, to soothe relations with his most important ally?

News, first reported in the Financial Times, that Biden is eyeing a notorious scrapper like Emanuel for U.S. ambassador provoked a bull market in head-scratching. The idea that the notoriously aggressive and foul-mouthed former Congressman, White House bigwig and Chicago mayor will thrive in a place with very strict behavioral norms around politeness boggles the mind.

"He is a disaster in the making," says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus. "He seems temperamentally unsuited to diplomacy and has all the prickly vindictive instincts reminiscent of The Donald."

What is going on here? Emanuel, 61, is a consummate Washington insider dating back to President Bill Clinton's day. And, often, a ruthlessly effective one. As President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Emanuel strong-armed lawmakers to vote yes on remaking the U.S. health care system. Quite a feat.

Emanuel has been gunning for a top job in Biden's White House, much to the chagrin of progressive Democrats. The pushback reflected, in part, his handling of the 2014 murder of a 17-year-old Black male in Chicago at the hands of a white police officer. Local media dubbed him "The Rahmfather." He famously sent an enemy a dead fish, Don Corleone-style.

Biden, out of personal loyalty, may figure a top ambassadorship is just the thing. But why not send the attack dog in your ranks to a place that needs as much American bite as bark? China, perhaps. Why not Russia, Saudi Arabia or Turkey? India sure could use a burst of Chicago-style realpolitik. Or why not name Emanuel de facto ambassador to Taiwan? But Japan?

Vice President Joe Biden talks with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in August 2014: Biden may figure a top ambassadorship is just the thing.   © AP

Part of me wonders if Ron Klain, Biden's chief of staff, just wants to get overcaffeinated Emanuel as far away as humanly possible. Tokyo, 7,000 miles? Done! Or maybe Emanuel lobbied for Tokyo. Perhaps the high-profile Japan gig was his asking price.

Biden should rethink this one, and fast. And Suga's people should let Biden know under the radar that the Tokyo-Washington relationship could do with a less combative and tribal choice.

True, Japan likes to have heavy-hitting political insiders in Tokyo. Here, think former Vice President Walter Mondale, Senators Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker and Speaker-of-the-House Tom Foley. Each oozed gravitas and signaled that Tokyo is a genuine priority for Washington. Obama even sent the closest thing America had to royalty: Caroline Kennedy.

Good luck finding a Japanese anywhere who, when pressed, could actually name Trump's Japan ambassador. I Googled him for you: Bill Hagerty, who left the job in July 2019. Trump had such deep respect for Japan and Nobel-Prize booster Abe that do you know who replaced Hagerty? No one. Trump did not bother.

Biden is not pulling a Richard Grenell here. Grenell is the flame-throwing Twitter troll Trump sent to Berlin to make Angela Merkel's life miserable. This is not that. While Emanuel is exactly no one's idea of a courteous diplomat, his experience and connections certainly make him qualified. Temperamentally, not so much, in a nation still getting over its Trump trauma.

Regardless of who he sends to Tokyo, Biden's administration must sit with Suga's more often than it has. Granted, it is still early days. And fighting COVID-19 is a near-full time job. But most of Biden's big geopolitical challenges are in Tokyo's backyard.

Figuring out how to move beyond Trump's trade brawls is a vital priority. So is standing with the people of Hong Kong, deterring China from encroaching on Taiwan's sovereignty and preserving freedom of navigation norms in the Asian seas. North Korea's nuclear aggression always sits in the backdrop.

There is also the way forward on trade. Biden has been slow to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Doing so might enrage progressives in his party. Yet that 2017 day when Trump pulled out of TPP was a great one for China's Xi Jinping, who soon stepped into the void with the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Biden's best path forward is winning Suga's help in revamping TPP to placate his Democratic Party -- and to grow the grouping. Nothing would get Xi's attention quicker than pulling South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and even Taiwan into TPP.

All Biden needs is the right voice in Tokyo to make the case -- one whose phone calls Suga's LDP will actually take. On most lists of candidates for that important job, The Rahmfather probably would not crack the top 100. Plan B, anyone?

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