Japanese Troops Might be of More Benefit Elsewhere

After much difficult deliberation and debate, the Koizumi government has decided to send several hundred Japanese troops to the U.S.-led stabilization operation in Iraq. They will be working alongside roughly another 25,000 foreign troops, including just over 10,000 Brits and 3,000 South Koreans, as well as more than 100,000 American soldiers.

Japanese leaders and the Japanese people are to be commended and thanked for their willingness to send even a modest force to Iraq. The United States is greatly in need of help in this mission. The operation is proving extremely demanding on its all-volunteer military. It is also giving rise to an unfortunate perception among the Iraqi people and much of the world that the U.S. desires to dominate their country and region through largely unilateral uses of military force.

Japan’s assistance is thus quite important. And the Japanese government’s willingness to take political risks, both domestically and in regard to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region that have mixed feelings about its decision to send even small forces abroad, is courageous.

However, for those of us who would like to see Japan do a good deal more in the international security arena, and particularly in peace operations, one must also ask if Iraq is the optimal place for Japan to take its next big steps. This is not to suggest that Japan should end its role there just as it is beginning.

But to the extent Tokyo would consider renewing the deployment next year or even expanding it, there is a serious case to be made that it should instead send forces to other critical multilateral peace and stabilization missions—in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Sierra Leone or Congo, for example. It could still help the U.S. by participating in these missions, while perhaps doing even more to further the cause of saving lives through humanitarian military operations.

The reason for this suggestion is simple. First, the Iraq mission is very dangerous. About 40 American troops and several more from coalition partners have been dying monthly throughout the post-Saddam Hussein period. This means that Japanese troops could very easily suffer several soldiers killed in action—and perhaps even more if particularly bad luck befalls them.

Second, the above-noted operations in other parts of the world are also all very important. And for most of them there are not sufficient numbers of available skilled forces.

In Afghanistan, for example, the NATO-run International Security Assistance Force stabilization mission is truly effective only in the capital city of Kabul.

In Congo, a force of just 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers is attempting to shore up a peace in a country more than 10 times the size and population of Bosnia or Kosovo (and twice that of Iraq). Yet missions in these other countries have generally been endowed with several times as many peacekeepers in all cases except that of Afghanistan.

Third, Japan is a very casualty-averse country and a rather pacifist one as well. These facts have their advantages and disadvantages, but the point is that they are facts, and ones that policymakers would do well to remember. They derive from Japan’s entire national experience and political psyche of the last 60 years.

Given the Japanese public’s well-known reluctance to tolerate casualties to its own troops, as evidenced in the Cambodia mission a decade ago, it is not clear that Japan should dive into the Iraq mission headfirst. One must walk before one can run.

This is not to say that operations in Afghanistan or Congo would be safe or easy; indeed, Japan’s excellent military capabilities would be greatly beneficial in these places. In Afghanistan, the enemy is remnants of al-Qaeda together with the former Taliban regime. Since al-Qaeda is a brutal foe that directly attacked Japan’s only ally and that has threatened Japan as well, any casualties suffered in fighting against it might be easier to accept for the Japanese people.

Likewise, in Congo, the greatest risks are likely to be the country’s huge size and the possibility of accidents or the occasional random gunfight—not the concerted terroristic actions of a hardened group of angry, hateful guerrillas bent on defeating the U.S. and its allies at any cost.

So Japan has some tough choices to make. Its willingness to participate in Iraq is welcome and laudable. But there may be better places to conduct future peacekeeping efforts.

Focusing on Iraq may be the best way to please Japan’s only ally, but it also may be the riskiest next step for the Japanese polity to take in its gradual, noble and necessary efforts to do more in global peace operations. A catastrophe in Iraq could cause a major setback in Japan’s gradually increasing willingness to use its military as a force for good in the international system. And that outcome would outweigh any benefit it could provide to the U.S. in the interim.