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Biden's Asia policy

With Rahm Emanuel, Biden gives Tokyo exactly what it asked for

Ambassador pick is a Japan neophyte with direct line to the White House

TOKYO -- Only a year into Barack Obama's presidency, his chief of staff nearly resigned.

The battle to pass the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, had resulted in big electoral loss for the Democratic Party. And Rahm Emanuel, went around Washington, venting that he had warned the president this would happen.

"Having your chief of staff appear to distance himself from you after you've been knocked down in a fight is less than ideal," Obama wrote in his 2020 memoir, "A Promised Land."

A chastened Emanuel offered his resignation but Obama declined, saying Emanuel's punishment would be to usher the health care bill through Congress.

And that he did. When Emanuel finally stepped down after a whirlwind two years to run for mayor of Chicago, his hometown, the president gave him a framed checklist of the administration's priorities, written on their first day in the White House.

"Almost every item had been checked off," Obama wrote.

Emanuel, 61, is known as a shrewd congressional vote-counter and well-connected Democratic fundraiser, most notably for former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. His work as legislative strategist for Clinton made him an ideal chief of staff for Obama, then a Washington neophyte with ambitions to pass a nearly trillion-dollar economic stimulus package and comprehensive health care reform.

But where his infamous outbursts were a useful negotiating tool in Washington, they may work against him in Tokyo's placid political culture. Nikkei has reported that President Joe Biden will nominate Emanuel as ambassador to Japan. The critical post of chief diplomat to America's most important ally in Asia has been vacant since William Hagerty departed in 2019.

"Making the big deal, getting the legislation through -- it's about solving problems. Issues between the U.S. and Japan don't lend themselves to that sort of approach," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.

"Does he have the temperament to understand that compromise and patience in diplomacy [are] a lot more important than bluster?" Kingston said.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama right, talks with then Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel after walking off Air Force One while arriving at O'Hare International Airport on Oct. 7, 2016, in Chicago.    © AP

Emanuel, a domestic policy wonk, has little experience in foreign affairs. Upon arrival, the new ambassador will be thrust into regional issues including the historical rift between Japan and South Korea, stalled negotiations with North Korea and a geopolitical standoff with China. But tensions over U.S. bases in Okinawa, defense spending, and trade imbalance have long simmered under the surface of America and Japan's close relationship.

As mayor, however, Emanuel took a 44-member delegation from Chicago on a trade trip to Japan and China, according to the Chicago Tribune.

"I find it embarrassing, frankly, that America sends people who don't know anything about the country they're going to as ambassador," said Clyde Prestowitz, who led trade negotiations with Japan for the Reagan administration.

Emanuel would be joining a cohort of diplomats with deep ties in Japan and Asia. Recently arrived U.K. Ambassador Julia Longbottom led China policy and was previously in Tokyo as deputy head of mission. Russian Ambassador Mikhail Galuzin, a 40-year veteran of Moscow's mission in Tokyo, grew up partially in Japan and speaks the language fluently.

"It can be dangerous if a person who's very ignorant is very influential to the president. The danger is high that he will become a captive of the Japanese establishment," said Prestowitz.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, then ambassador William Hagerty, center, and his wife Chrissy Hagerty on November 6, 2017 in Tokyo.   © State Department photo/Public Domain

Neither Hagerty nor Caroline Kennedy, Obama's envoy, were Japan experts. Both were known around town as absentee ambassadors.

"We tend to have high-profile, politically well-connected ambassadors, and that's what Japan likes," said Kingston. "The Japanese obviously lobby for people who are not super knowledgeable about Japan because they're easier to lobby than someone who knows the language and understands the subtle signaling."

Japan's tepid response to the coup in Myanmar and China's crackdown on Hong Kong and its Uyghur population have been sources of frustration for the Biden administration.

"The fundamental tension is how hard Emanuel will push Japan on doing more beyond empty rhetorical grandstanding," said Kingston.

But an untested ambassador can also present downsides for Japan, as he will be a conduit for transmitting not only U.S. interests to Tokyo, but also Japan's interests to Washington. Namely, Tokyo's balancing act between its economic relationship with China and security prerogatives.

"The number one task is to convey in an accurate, persuasive way to the Japanese government and to the Japanese people what the Biden administration's policies are toward Japan, China, East Asia and climate," said Gerald Curtis, Burgess professor emeritus of political science at Columbia University.

"Whether he can be as effective in helping Washington understand what Japan's views are, that's an open question because he doesn't have the background or the connections," Curtis added.

For all the talk of Emanuel's volatile personality, experts agree that Tokyo can rest easy, as the Biden administration's negotiating posture is less combative than Donald Trump's.

"Hagerty was doing what President Trump wanted to do, which was pressure allies on trade deficits and 'America First' economic policies," said Tobias Harris, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "Hagerty, I think, was committed to that and delivered that message, he chided Japan for being a free-riding ally in pretty much every setting."

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi may be able to make inroads with their new interlocutor through their business backgrounds. Emanuel worked in investment banking after leaving the Clinton administration.

"I imagine the base hosting deal is something he will be good at because it's a number," said Kingston. "Defense Minister Kishi is an experienced businessman who thinks Japan is getting shafted by pricing on procurement from the United States. That's a problem that lends itself to Emanuel's skill set."

While Emanuel is expected to be confirmed by the 50-50 Senate, in which Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris holds the casting vote, his nomination hearing will likely be a contentious affair.

Some of the opposition to Emanuel's appointment comes from the political left. "Such top diplomatic posts should only go to individuals with ethics, integrity and diplomatic skills. Emanuel possesses none of those qualifications," said a coalition of 28 Democratic groups, including the Progressive Democrats of America, in a joint statement.

The hearing will be progressive Democrats' only chance to grill Emanuel on his time as Chicago's mayor, during which he initiated educational reforms that closed schools in Black neighborhoods and was accused of covering for police who shot and killed Laquan McDonald, a Black 17-year-old, in 2014.

"This is someone that Biden clearly trusts and is willing to stick his neck out for, even though getting him confirmed might not be the easiest thing," said Harris. "That should tell the Japanese government a lot about where Rahm fits in his constellation of advisers."

Originally pegged as Biden's transportation secretary, Emanuel's nomination was derailed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive House members before it was even announced.

By sending Emanuel to Tokyo, "maybe Biden just wants to get him out of his hair," said Kingston.

Additional reporting by Alex Fang in New York and Yoko Noge in Chicago.

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