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    New ambassador to Japan

    It’s been understood for a few months that Howard Baker will be stepping down as US Ambassador to Japan (although the post may officially be designated something “Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s”-ish–I’m not sure). His successor, announced on the day of President Bush’s inauguration, will be current Ambassador to Australia (“Ambassador to the Kangaroo Court,” maybe? I kill me sometimes, I just kill me) Thomas Schieffer.

    His official biography is here. He’s the brother of Bob Schieffer, the CNN reporter. Bet their family dinners are interesting! His given name is also John Thomas, though he has the good sense to go by “Tom.” And, I assume, not to have married a lady named Jane.

    The Nikkei says that many credit Schieffer with building a close, trusting relationship with John Howard during his tenure in Australia. That’s nice, but one is left wondering…well, what The Japan Times wonders:

    Some experts have voiced concern over Schieffer’s lack of involvement in U.S.-Japan affairs and his relative lack of political clout in comparison with former envoys to Japan.

    Baker was a Senate majority leader, while his predecessor was former House of Representatives Speaker Thomas Foley. Among the other political heavyweights who have filled the Tokyo post in the past is former Vice President Walter Mondale.

    But other experts say that political background is not the only factor that determines the selection of an ambassador. In Schieffer’s case, his close ties with Bush make it easier to report directly to the president and to get White House policies reflected in diplomatic undertakings in Japan, they said.

    A Republican congressional source said the appointment signals that the Bush administration’s policy of prioritizing ties with Japan will stay intact, with Schieffer expected to be the president’s closest ambassador. The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to confirm his nomination.

    Well, okay. Given the deep-rooted cronyism in Japan, I suppose Tokyo can’t feel slighted by having Baker replaced by a long-time friend of Bush’s. (Schieffer was one of his partners in the ownership and development of the Texas Rangers.) Also, given the famed closeness between Bush and Koizumi themselves, Schieffer seems unlikely to have to work with Japanese bureaucrats to smooth over friction created between their heads of state.

    Even so, Japan is in a delicate spot right now. No one disputes that the US is its most important ally, but plenty of people dispute the means by which mutual support is given: the US bases here, especially since the announcement that our forces worldwide will be redistributed; the SDF deployed in a non-combat capacity in Iraq; the petition to make Japan a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with the attendant debate over revising Article 9 of the constitution.

    Given that context, and given that Baker hasn’t left office, it isn’t yet possible to know whether Schieffer’s way of being close to the power center–through intimacy rather than through career-earned clout–will be helpful to the Bush and Koizumi administrations. It appears to have worked in Australia, but Australia does not have the self-image of being impossible for uninitiated foreigners to understand that Japan does. We’ll see. In the meantime, best wishes to Howard Baker, who does not have loads of presence as a personality but, from what I’ve seen, was unshowy, workmanlike, and gentlemanly in going about his duties.

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