Mutually Assured Frustration - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Mutually Assured Frustration

Saddam Hussein is in custody but the struggle to suppress Iraqi insurgents remains. Washington needs allied help to lighten its burden, and the most generous aid should come from nations the U.S. has defended for decades, particularly Japan and South Korea, with which America has long maintained “mutual” defense treaties.

The Bush administration attacked Iraq with meaningful military support from only two nations, Britain and Australia. Thus, it comes as no surprise that just a few countries, such as Italy, Poland, and Ukraine, subsequently offered troop detachments worth counting for garrison duty. Most nations had little inclination to bail out America and have grown less willing to help as violence has spread in Iraq. Indeed, with the deaths of allied soldiers in resistance attacks, Denmark has said no to sending additional troops and the Netherlands and Spain are rethinking their existing commitments.

Both Japan and South Korea promised cooperation in the midst of America’s swift victory. But as the situation in Iraq turned ugly both began a backward tango over troop contributions and spent months watching from the sidelines. Tokyo twice postponed any deployment. “We would like to do it as soon as possible,” Japan’s Defense Agency Director Shigeru Ishiba told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during his recent visit to Japan, as if some mysterious force prevented Tokyo from acting.

Japan has finally begun sending its first units to bases in Kuwait and Qatar. Alas, though the move has been politically divisive at home, it is mostly symbolic. There will be only 1,000 Japanese soldiers, engaged in humanitarian work, not security duties. In early December Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said that Japan’s forces would not transport ammunition or weapons for coalition forces. And Tokyo has asked for U.S. military protection for its personnel.

This is help?

EQUALLY FRUSTRATING HAS BEEN South Korea’s hesitation. The government of President Roh Moo-hyun has engaged in months of anguished internal debate. At one point, President Roh rejected any deployment until there is “a positive outlook for and conviction in peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” Which could take decades or more.

Now Seoul appears to have decided to send 3,000 soldiers, perhaps including combatants, but not yet. Maybe April, if the National Assembly approves — which is uncertain, given popular opposition.

Officials from both countries have waxed eloquent on why Washington shouldn’t push too hard. South Korea is worried about the North Koreans. Japan is still dealing with the ghosts of militarism. The proposed deployments are wildly unpopular in both nations. And, goodness, Iraq is dangerous. Some of their soldiers might die, as Americans are doing on a daily basis.

Publicly, at least, Bush administration officials have been polite. “We are confident that our friends here will make decisions that are appropriate to them,” said Secretary Rumsfeld. But the decisions “appropriate to them” obviously are to do as little as possible, while remaining subsidized, coddled, and protected by America. In Seoul and Tokyo, the “mutual” in Mutual Defense Treaty is for appearances only.

THIS TEASE IS NO LONGER acceptable. Japan is the world’s second-ranking power. It has globe-spanning economic interests, security concerns throughout East Asia, and will be most threatened in the future if a growing China turns aggressive. Tokyo should start recruiting soldiers in Japan rather than relying on those from America to see to its defense needs.

South Korea vastly out-ranges the North in economic strength, technological prowess, and population size, yet lags in military power because it prefers to rely on the U.S. At the same time, anti-Americanism has flared and leading South Koreans whine about the lack of “equality” with Washington in the two nations’ relationship. A good start toward achieving equality would be for Seoul to make its own assessment of the threat posed by North Korea and build up its military forces accordingly.

More insulting than both countries’ continuing defense dependence on America has been their reluctance to risk blood for the U.S. After all, thousands of Americans have risked, and continue to risk, their blood for Japan and South Korea.

In the case of South Korea, 34,000 died to defend that nation during the Korean War. When a South Korean reporter asked Secretary Rumsfeld why Seoul should send troops to Iraq, he responded: “I suppose for the exact same reason that the American people sent their young men and women over to Korea 50 years ago.” In fact, U.S. casualties did not end with the armistice; another 1,500 have been killed in firefights and attacks in the ensuing years. Now the U.S. is asking for help. And months of asking have produced a pair of mice.

Both countries are entitled to respond that deploying forces in Iraq isn’t in their interest. They can argue that America is engaged in a fool’s errand trying to reshape Iraq. They can even say the commitment of even several thousand troops wouldn’t make a difference.

All those arguments may be true but they are, by now, irrelevant. Instead of bemoaning the lack of shared interests, and badgering Tokyo and Seoul to ante up small detachments for Iraq, the U.S. should simply begin removing forces from those countries for duty in Iraq. “We could send the troops if circumstances permit,” said Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukudo at one point. And America could bring its forces out of Japan and South Korea if circumstances permit. As they do.

The U.S. is busy dealing with terrorism and the aftermath of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington no longer has the forces, resources, or time to protect populous, prosperous states that are capable of defending themselves.

Doug Bandow
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Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
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