Konnichi-Whaa? Experts debate Caroline Kennedy’s Japan cred

Tim Cavanaugh Contributor
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Although Caroline Kennedy has not been officially nominated as the United States ambassador to Japan, a report of the probable pick has provoked wide discussion – not all of it positive – about whether the last living member of Camelot’s first family is up to the job.

“I’m sure she’s a lovely person and a good lawyer and author and, of course, she comes from a prominent American family and was wise enough to choose the right father,” Economic Strategy Institute president Clyde Prestowitz wrote Tuesday in Foreign Policy magazine. “But she knows little of Japan, speaks no Japanese, and is not particularly experienced in world affairs and diplomacy.”

Elsewhere in Foreign Policy, Kennedy School of Government professor of foreign policy Stephen M. Walt called the potential appointment “amateur hour,” noting that Kennedy is “neither a diplomat nor an experienced politician, and she’s certainly not an expert on East Asia.”

“It thought it was an April Fool’s joke when I first heard about it,” California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who sits on the House foreign affairs committee, told FoxNews.com, referring to the timing of the report in Monday’s New York Times. “Our economic and national security are based on goodwill toward Japan. I have nothing against Caroline Kennedy becoming ambassador to, say, Barbados. But Japan is too important for somebody with no experience.”

Writing at TheDiplomat.com, Zachary Keck expressed reservations with a degree of subtlety appropriate to that site’s name.

“The pick would be largely political as Kennedy does not have any immediately obvious qualifications to serve as America’s top envoy in Japan,” Keck wrote. “Her career has largely been devoted to authoring books and serving on the boards of several non-profit organizations. … She does have a long history of support for the president, however.”

Kennedy has been a key supporter, donor and bundler for President Barack Obama. If she is picked for the Tokyo post, she will follow in the footsteps of current ambassador John Roos, a former Wilson Sonsini CEO who also brought no qualifications to the post but helped fill Obama’s coffers during the 2008 presidential campaign. Roos and Kennedy stand in sharp contrast to previous U.S. ambassadors to Japan, most of them high-level government figures and in some cases bona fide Japan experts.

The Tokyo post is also becoming more sensitive, due to rising martial tensions between Japan and China, military threats from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, years of economic stagnation in the U.S. and Japan, and other factors.

Finally, the report of Kennedy’s pending nomination caps long criticism that Obama’s foreign policy team is short on Asia/Pacific expertise and has produced few notable successes. The move would also cast doubt on whether the president’s “Pivot to Asia,” which was announced with some fanfare last year, will actually occur.

Bruce Klingner, the Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for Northeast Asia, notes that evidence of the pivot – such as the recent decision to base missile batteries in Alaska – has been underwhelming.

Nevertheless, Klingner is relatively positive on Kennedy’s prospects.

“The significance here is that this is a prominent person who is close to the president,” he said in an interview with The Daily Caller, “which indicates that Japan issues may receive a higher priority in Washington. That will be welcome in Japan.”

Kent E. Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, also expressed hope for Kennedy’s ambassadorial prospects.

“The mystique of the Kennedy White House is very important,” Calder told TheDC, noting that Reischauer, Kennedy’s ambassador to Japan, was fluent in Japanese and is widely regarded as the most effective U.S. representative to Tokyo in history. Calder also pointed out that Roos has been a successful ambassador despite his lack of credentials.

“The Kennedy administration was a period of very good and warming relations between the United States and Japan,” Calder said. “To the extent that Caroline Kennedy, whom I’ve seen speak and who is a person with some presence, recalls those days, her appointment will be well received.”

“Who remembers that?” countered Prestowitz in an interview with TheDC. “In Japan anybody who remembers the Kennedy administration is 70 years old or older. And if they do remember it, so what? They may have a nice feeling about Kennedy, but that doesn’t mean they have any feelings about his daughter.”

Prestowitz said a Kennedy nomination would be further evidence of a “devaluation of the Tokyo post. You start with Reischauer who was a Japan expert,” he said. “Then you move away from that but at least you had political heavyweights, people like Mike Mansfield, Walter Mondale, Tom Foley. Then from there you get to Roos, who is a bundler. And now the offspring of a president.”

Prestowitz also stressed the importance of having an ambassador who can speak Japanese.

“The Japanese ambassador here can call you up and talk to you in English,” Prestowitz said. “He can do talk shows and help shape the thinking in Washington and America about Japan. If you put somebody like Caroline Kennedy over there, she has a nice name and is a nice woman, but she can’t speak to people directly or explain our positions on talk shows.”

Kennedy is remembered for an episode that cast doubt on her fluency in English as well as Japanese. In a NY1 appearance during her 2009 consideration of a Senate run, Kennedy interjected “You know” nearly 100 times in the course of a short interview. The impression that she was unserious in her aspirations proved hard to shake, and she ended up dropping out of the race.

Still, even skeptics about her Japan prospects speak highly of Kennedy’s personality and seriousness.

“Kennedy is a delightful woman,” Jayne Jones, a former staffer for Sen. Norm Coleman and author of the new book Capitol Hell, told TheDC. “She’s elegant, she’s a great person, and she will bring celebrity to the Japan post. I just don’t think this is a post you give necessarily to a celebrity. I’d look for somebody with more foreign policy experience. This just doesn’t seem to be the right position for Caroline Kennedy at this time.”

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