A Rahm Emanuel is Exactly What Japan Wants, Asia Scholars Say
What matters in American politics is not what matters to Tokyo.
Progressives hate him and Republicans love to hate on him, but Rahm Emanuel’s controversial nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Japan is receiving strong support from one key constituency far from the fringes of left-right politics: Asia security experts. Leading watchers of the region say Emanuel is poised to offer the Japanese what they most want in an ambassador: a personal connection to President Joe Biden.
Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, has received public opposition from some Democrat members of Congress over his record on police violence and race. But issues commanding attention in American politics often are far removed from those in other capitals. Asia experts said that, from a foreign policy viewpoint, his long-time relationship with the current president will be seen as an asset in Japan and an indication that America values its relationship with Tokyo.
“It’s really important in Tokyo among government and political leaders that there is a person in Tokyo who can pick up the phone and speak to the president,” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Asia Pacific studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There is no doubt that Rahm Emanuel can do that.”
Critics of Emanuel’s nomination, which was formally sent to the Senate last week, point to his role as Chicago mayor in the investigation of the 2014 police murder of a Black teenager in which it took 13 months for video footage of the shooting to be released. Some left-wing Democrats have alleged that Emanuel played a role in that delay, though he has denied it.
In August, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Minn., said senators should reject Emanuel’s nomination “if you believe Black lives indeed matter.” Three weeks ago, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said in a statement that Emanuel’s alleged role in this “cover up” should be “disqualifying for any position of public trust.” When his nomination was made official last week, Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet, “This continues to be one of the most bizarre campaigns / uses of energy in Washington. Once again, Senate should vote NO on confirming Rahm Emanuel.”
When asked if any of the left’s criticism of Emanuel included concern about his lack of foreign policy credentials, a spokesperson for Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., pointed to a Sept. 1 joint statement with Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., that focused entirely on racial justice.
Requests for comment to some of the most ardent critics of Emanuel, including Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. were not returned.
Despite the pushback from those House Democrats over his record as mayor, members of the foreign relations committees on the Hill widely support Emanuel, including Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will consider his nomination. Perhaps more importantly, Emanuel has the support of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the majority whip.
“Japan is an important strategic partner in Asia, particularly in light of our continued challenges from China,” Durbin tweeted in August. “I will do all I can to help Rahm become America’s voice in Japan.”
No Democrat in the Senate has said they will vote against Emanuel’s nomination. One of the only Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee who has expressed any reservations is Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who said he had received letters from constituents with concerns about Emanuel’s response to the shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014.
“Please be assured that I will keep your views in mind should Mr. Emanuel’s nomination come before the Senate for consideration,” Merkley wrote.
Republicans and conservative pundits historically have detested Emanuel as a Clinton-Obama insider. When he was spotted visiting Trump Tower in December 2016, Fox’s Sean Hannity warned President-elect Donald Trump against cozying up to “Rahm ‘Rambo dead fish’ Emanuel.”
But even some Republicans intend to support Emanuel’s bid for the ambassadorship. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., have applauded Biden’s choice.
“I congratulate @RahmEmanuel on his nomination. I know the Japanese people with their deep love for the U.S. look forward to welcoming the next Ambassador,” tweeted Hagerty, a former ambassador to Japan in the Trump administration.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., also said they will support Emanuel, the Washington Post reported.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told Politico he will vote no because of “Chicago’s decline” under Emanuel’s leadership, but did not mention foreign policy.
Though Senate progressives Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are not on the committee that will consider Emanuel’s nomination, any senator can block a nomination from final confirmation. Neither has said whether they will take up the objections of their House counterparts, but there is history here, too. In the 2020 presidential primaries, Emanuel called Sanders’s chances to defeat Trump a “really a big risk,” during an interview with Stephen Colbert, who joked, “Are you here tonight to kneecap Bernie Sanders?” During the previous election cycle in 2016, Sanders thanked Emanuel on Twitter for not endorsing him, saying that “I don’t want the endorsement of a mayor shutting down schools and firing teachers.”
Both offices did not return a request for comment.
White House officials remain confident in Emanuel’s nomination, and no senators have expressed private concerns to the administration, a senior administration official told Defense One. Still, Emanuel isn’t taking anything for granted and is “hustling for every senator’s support,” the source said.
Some of Emanuel’s critics raise concerns that his well-known brisk demeanor could clash with Japanese culture, but Smith said Emanuel will find sharp-elbowed, competitive politicians in Japan as well, and that she doesn’t expect Japanese officials will have any difficulty working with him.
That will be especially true if Tara Kono, a leading contender to be the next Japanese prime minister, becomes the country’s leader, said Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Kono is not your typical quiet, reserved Japanese politician,” Cooper said. “If it happens to be that Kono ends up being the next prime minister, I think you could make a strong argument that Rahm Emanuel is a pick that would work really well with him.”
If he is confirmed, Emanuel will become ambassador to a U.S. treaty ally at a critical time in the relationship, when Biden is seeking to recruit Japan to take a tougher stance against the rising threat of China. In April, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was the first foreign leader to visit Biden at the White House. Biden’s choice of Emanuel, with whom he has a close relationship, signifies again how important the alliance with Japan is to the president, Smith said.
“I’m not hearing people being critical of him,” said Kirsti Govella, deputy director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund. “People focused on Asia or Japan realize a central concern is continuing the close relationship and continuing to be seen as a key ally. In many ways, the best ambassador is one who can keep the U.S.-Japan relationship central to U.S. foreign policy.”
Many past U.S. ambassadors to Japan have had little or no experience in the region. Caroline Kennedy, lacked any expertise on Japan or diplomatic background, yet was successful as ambassador from 2013 to 2017 and loved by the Japanese public, in part because her name carried a lot of weight in American politics.
“If the Japanese had to choose between someone who knows them well and someone who knows the president well, they’d probably choose someone who knows the president well every time,” Cooper said.