Japan’s 10 years since 9/11

Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former high-level Japanese official, talks about Iraq and the future of Asia.

Japanese submarine at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
Japanese relations with Asia must be ‘win-win’, but still weighs on the US-Japanese relationship [GALLO/GETTY]

Tokyo, Japan – Kyoji Yanagisawa is a former chief of the National Institute for Defence Studies, a think-tank of Japan’s Defence Ministry, and also the first high-ranking government official in Japan who has declared the Iraq War to have been unnecessary. Serving as an assistant chief cabinet secretary (2004-2009), he presided over Japan’s Self-Defence Forces operations in Samawah, Iraq. While addressing the significance of seeking inquiry into the Japanese government’s involvement in the war, Yanagisawa also casts doubt on the official reasons given for the presence of US Marines in Okinawa and exaggerated fears over North Korea and China. He calls on the Japanese government to review its relationship with the US and establish a new diplomatic policy toward East Asia. He was interviewed by Fumi Inoue, a Kyoto-based reporter.

Japan and the Iraq War

Inoue: In your latest lectures, you said that the Iraq War was an unnecessary war. In what respects do you think that the war was unnecessary? When the war started, you were a chief of the National Institute for Defence Studies (NIDS), a think-tank of the Defence Ministry.

Yanagisawa: Because the NIDS is a think-tank founded for policy-making, I thought that we had to grapple squarely with Iraq, the biggest issue of that time. Therefore, I gathered specialists with different expertise and held discussions calling them brain-storming. Everybody spoke freely; the objective of them was not necessarily to form a consensus of opinion.

In 2002, the US adopted a pre-emptive attack strategy aimed at terrorists in its National Security Strategy and identified North Korea, Iran and Iraq as the “Axis of Evil”. I was extremely bewildered that the US advanced a strategy which had not been common under international law. Nevertheless, noticing its resolute determination on that position, my thinking at that time as the head of the NIDS settled on how to corroborate it and give them theoretical support.

Despite a wide range of discussions at that time, everybody, except for Dr Chikako Ueki [who was interviewed by Yanagisawa on his latest book, An Era of Independence from the US Alliance] agreed that nobody could stop the US and that Japan as an ally could not oppose it and create a split.  

Japan and the US shared the sense of threat posed by international terrorism and of WMDs. Back then, there was a greater fear among us that the proliferation of WMDs would accelerate and reach a point where nobody could put the brakes on it if the US actions were to be denied. Frankly speaking, though, we were unable to make arguments to justify these actions.

I have been pondering different possibilities. For example, what would have happened if the UN had authorised the invasion? It is possible that the UN could have made a mistake. With that in mind, I began to think after it became clear Iraq did not possess WMDs that the UN, or a multilateral consensus, so to speak, should not have been the basis of legal legitimacy, so as to properly confirm actual conditions.

Although there were no casualties among SDF members stationed in Samawah, the US military’s casualties in Iraq are far beyond the number of those who died from the 9/11 attacks, and the total casualties of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq is twice the number of the 9/11 victims. Besides, civilian casualties of these wars are much, much higher. It is true that the information that served as the stated cause of this war has been shown to be fabricated, but the countries that opposed this war were also unable to verify whether Iraq held WMDs or not. Yet even leaving this question aside, when we look at what has come out of the war, should the total cost of this war be justified politically even if WMDs had been found in Iraq and the war had been initiated to remove them? In this respect, I believe it was the wrong decision, and since the outcome itself revealed that Iraq did not possess WMDs, there is even more reason to say that the war was an unnecessary one.

Inoue: Could you also speak on another justification of the war, which was to overthrow the Saddam regime?

Yanagisawa: I had doubts about it from the beginning. Article 2 of the UN Charter prohibits regime change; it does not allow any use of force against political independence or territorial integrity. This was just my own suspicion back then, yet I was wondering if the option to overthrow the government was truly justifiable even when we presupposed that the objective to make Iraq abandon its WMDs programme itself was legitimate. The NIDS’ debates did not make a big deal out of that aspect. I think it was a reckless way of thinking. As a matter of fact, though, at the time of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the UN resolution achieved its purpose without collapsing the regime.

Inoue: How did you and the government collect information regarding the war? And how did the US government hold briefings with Japan?

Yanagisawa: The US has counterparts of its intelligence organisations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Japan, so we interacted with them at the Cabinet Investigation Room and the Defence Ministry’s intelligence headquarters on a daily basis. The other way was through the US government in Washington and the American Embassy in Tokyo, which gave direct briefings to top officials at the PM office.

And the Japanese government led field investigations to prepare to dispatch the SDF in Samawah, Iraq. It was Japan’s own judgment that Samawah was a relatively stable region in Iraq as compared to others. Regarding information on operations, it came from interactions with the headquarters of the multinational forces in Baghdad, Qatar, the UK presiding in Basra, and the Netherlands operating in Samawah. The assessment of information that was conducted through exchanges in the field, rather than individual pieces, came to my hands on a daily basis.       

Inoue: Lawrence Wilkerson, a former chief of staff to US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was interviewed by American journalist Amy Goodman said that he would regret to his grave that he was involved in orchestrating the speech Powell made to the Security Council in 2003. Wilkerson also said he would be willing to take any due punishment and former Bush administration officials should be held accountable for their war crimes. You, also as a former government official, have publicly been speaking on the significance of reviewing the Japanese government’s engagement in the war. What is your opinion about holding a governmental inquiry? 

Yanagisawa: As I mentioned earlier, I struggled with questions over the war when I was chief of the NIDS. I think many national security specialists also agonised over it. Certainly, it was a momentous course [Japan chose] which may have changed international rule. But when I reflect on the discourse inside the government, then-government officials do not seem to have attempted any serious questioning.

Since the SDF engagement in the war dealt with humanitarian and logistical support, meaning that Japan’s support was political, we are not guilty of anything in terms of violations of international law and humanitarian law. However, if Japan does not make its own judgment on the war by asking again whether we are really going to accept the status quo when there appears to be a sign that a superpower one day, all of the sudden, tries to change the existing international rule, we will face more problems in the future.

The UK and Netherlands held an official inquiry into the war, but the US has not investigated its process of policy-making, though the last presidential election virtually rejected the course paved by former President Bush. I believe it is crucial that policymakers in both Japan and the US who were involved in the war speak on this event.

When I reflect on the war and the kinds of allegations raised by Dick Cheney, it is apparent that his policies depart from the Weinberger Doctrine and the Powell Doctrine. The policies carried out by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were such that they themselves own private military companies. There were probably economic interests for the masterminds Rumsfeld and Cheney, who aggressively promoted the war. If that is the case, it is unforgivable. I do not think they blame themselves, but if the war was waged for the purpose of profit-making, the inquiry should be held in the US too.    

US Marines necessary in Okinawa?

Inoue: You have made clear your stance toward the Futenma US Marine Air Base relocation issue. Could you explain why you think the US Marines in Okinawa could be transferred elsewhere?  

Yanagisawa: In 1996, the agreement made between PM Hashimoto and US Ambassador Mondale recognised the significance of striking a balance between reducing the burden imposed on the Okinawan people and maintaining deterrence. However, what deterrence meant back in 1996 and that of today with post-9/11, the Iraq War, and the rise of China, are unquestionably different in concept and content.

My fundamental understanding is that the argument that deterrence does not function without a battalion of 2,000 combat Marines in Okinawa [who are to remain after the closure of the Futenma base and the transfer of some 8,000 Marines to Guam] itself does not make sense. The term “deterrence” is military jargon, which is used in the discourse of national security, so it stems from military ideas. This implies that we need to question again in terms of military common sense if there are any realities that have to be deterred after the US Marines leave the island.

At the time when the 1996 agreement was made, the two governments’ discussions focused on the possibility of the breakout of war in the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, the Korean Peninsula of today hosts US-Korean joint forces. And if such an emergency is ever to break out, Iwakuni and Sasebo, [cities in Japan that also host American bases] are located much closer to the Korean Peninsula than Okinawa. Therefore, justification of the presence of US Marines in Okinawa with the use of the question on the Korean Peninsula does not provide a plausible answer.           

Now let’s think about China. Certainly, China has reinforced naval forces and enhanced anti-access capabilities aimed at the US. In short, a competition for supremacy over the oceans is likely to be the primary conflict with China. Therefore, I think the presence of the Navy and Air Forces as well as the SDF, will be necessary as in the past with respect to our relationship with China. However, even if I try to imagine myself as a commander, I cannot grasp a picture of employing the Marines in the time of a conflict with China. If the Marines are to be landed in Taiwan, more and more troops will be deployed. It means a fight with the Chinese Army. China and the US must not assume such a total, confrontational warfare.

In 1996, when China conducted a missile-attack training operation near Taiwan, the US sent two aircraft carrier groups to the entrance of the Taiwan Strait. Because China felt humiliated unable to do anything against the US response, it has augmented its naval forces and developed missiles that are capable of striking aircraft carrier groups. China’s main purpose for reinforcing its forces is to foil a US attempt to use aircraft carrier combat units to enter the Taiwan Strait. The US has confirmed that China currently possesses adequate capabilities to do so. Thus, the major battle with China will be over naval supremacy, which means the key question is how to maintain the presence of aircraft carrier combat units. Does this render the Marine force of 2,000 troops in Okinawa indispensable?

When we take a look at the use of US Marines, they were generally used for sneak attacks in Afghanistan, yet in Iraq they collaborated with the Army. The Marines and Army approached Baghdad from the shores of the Tigris River and the Euphrates River, each aiding a flank. This reveals that the rationale that the Marines rely on their geopolitical location, or their proximity to a possible battleground, is not based on sound reasoning. The practical means of employing the Marines would require months of preparation in order to start a war. This has been a trend in the military’s common practice.

Inoue: Do you think that North Korea and China pose a threat to Japan and other parts of the world? 

Yanagisawa: Traditionally, the concept of threat implies when there is recognition of the other party’s capacities and intention for aggression. North Korea, which has been devoting much of its energy to the development of missiles, could, in that respect, be recognised as a threat. Nevertheless, observing the country’s moves after its missile launch tests, I figure that North Korea does not have any military assets except for its development of missiles and nuclear weapons. In reality, North Korea lacks finances and does not maintain any conventional arms that are capable of invading foreign nations. If North Korea ever attacked a country with its missiles, the regime would be completely destroyed. Thus, the degree of North Korea’s threat is limited, and some level of deterrence, including the nuclear arsenal of the US, is effective. When North Korea is showing missiles as a diplomatic card, we have to understand the country’s intention as it is.

As for China, neither the Japanese nor the US government publicly announces the country as a threat. This is because, I believe, there exists an ambivalent understanding of the country. The Soviet Union, a political adversary without economic ties to the US, which also possessed a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons, was decaled a potential threat. On the question as to whether China is categorised as the same type of state as the Soviet Union, one can see that there are numerous aspects that differentiate them. China, Japan and the US all need one another. Interdependency among us has generated a condition in which annihilation of another party leads to one’s own economic collapse.

It is too simple to conclude that economic interdependency guarantees peace. However, the reason why China cannot be an equivalent of the USSR is because with China there is space for politics and diplomacy to control situations. In terms of relationships with China, there are plentiful options, and there is a shared understanding between the US and China that military actions do not benefit either side. In this sense, we cannot define today’s threat in the same way as in the period of the Cold War.

From a military point of view, though this is a question of time, the naval forces of Japan and the US are far more sophisticated than those of China. In this sense, too, it is not the right time to identify China as an immediate threat. It would take China 10 years to catch up with Japan and 30 years with the US. There is still a plenty of time, so we need to establish a diplomatic system that does not lead us into threat-deterrence relationships. In order to respond to a conflict, we need emergency-control system or shock-absorbing capabilities in other words. We have been shifting from the age of deterrence to the age of balance in our lifetime.

East Asia and the 21st century

Inoue: According to the October edition of magazine, Voice, PM Noda believes that Japan’s relationships with Asian countries have to be win-win and that a weight has to be placed on Japan-US relationships. He stated that the Anglo-Japanese Alliance adopted in early 20th century helped Japan overcome the “agonising Russo-Japanese War” and establish a stable status in the world order of the post-war period. What kind of diplomacy is needed for Japan in the 21st century?

Yanagisawa: Noda’s remarks show his stereotypical thinking. There needs to be an analysis of why the alliance could not be sustained for a longer period of time. Some people often say that allying with the West is crucial and that allying with sea powers that do not harbour territorial ambitions is beneficial. That could be taken as a theory, but when we relate these arguments to the importance of today’s Japan-US Alliance, what is the threat they see that is equivalent to Russia at the time of the Anglo-Japan Alliance? The reason why the Japan-US Alliance cannot be replaced with the East Asian union is because we do not have the condition to achieve this. It would probably take more than several decades, but the challenge we are facing today is whether we see it as crucial or not.

Fumi Inoue is a graduate of the School of International Liberal Studies in Japan’s Waseda University, and is now a Kyoto-based reporter.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.