Embattled State Department official key part of quake response

Thursday, March 17, 2011; 10:51 AM

Embattled State Department official key part of quake response

Before a 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit Japan last Friday, one of the biggest news stories in Tokyo was the controversy over a U.S. official who allegedly had disparaged Okinawans for their stance on the relocation of a U.S. air base on the island. The official, Kevin Maher, then the State Department's director of Japan affairs, was removed from his post because of the episode.

Nevertheless, since the quake, Maher has been back in action - and in a big way.

Inside the "operations center" on the 7th floor of the State Department's headquarters, the Japan Earthquake Task Force is working 24 hours a day to coordinate U.S. assistance to the stricken area and keep lines of communication open between U.S. government agencies, foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations on the ground. Maher is the coordinator for the night shift (daytime in Japan) and has been working from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night since the quake.

Maher was removed as director of the Japan office at State on March 9 following reports that he told a group of American University students that Okinawan people were masters of "extortion." He was not fired, and he has denied the accuracy of the news reports regarding the incident.

Maher is uniquely qualified to help in the response, and not just because he led the Japan affairs office until the day before the quake. He has served in Japan multiple times during his career, and was the U.S. Embassy's minister-counselor for environment, science and technology affairs in Tokyo from 2001 to 2005, during which time he covered the nuclear industry.

For close observers of the U.S.-Japan relationship, the Maher incident shows that more needs to be done to build trust between officials on both sides to ensure that smaller issues don't get blown out of proportion such that larger cooperation suffers, especially in an emergency.

"The alliance managers showed a lack of courage by throwing [Maher] under the bus" and removing him from his post, one Washington Japan expert told The Cable. "But now they realize they need all Japan hands on deck for this crisis."

State Dept. pressed on Iran sanctions

The wide-ranging sanctions that President Obama signed into law last July call for the administration to punish companies from third-party countries that are still doing business in Iran. However, U.S. senators still aren't sure whether the administration will follow through with this punishment, especially when it comes to firms in China.

A bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators, led by Jon Kyl (R-Ky.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last Thursday to demand an update on the State Department's investigation of these companies' ongoing business with the Iranian government.

"It appears that Chinese firms in the energy and banking sectors have conducted significant activity in violation of U.S. law," the senators stated in the letter, which was obtained by The Cable. "We cannot afford to create the impression that China will be given free rein to conduct economic activity in Iran when more responsible nations have chosen to follow the course we have asked of them. We are sure you agree."

One of the main concerns on Capitol Hill is that as countries pull out from Iran, other nations will take over contracts, thereby nullifying the effect of the sanctions - a practice known as "backfilling."

The State Department's Bob Einhorn briefed senators and staff on Capitol Hill on this issue on March 11, but a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable that the lawmakers were satisfied with what they heard.

A great Tweeter moves on

When State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley resigned on Sunday afternoon, the U.S. diplomatic establishment didn't just lose its top spokesman, it also lost one of its most prolific, entertaining and sharp-tongued tweeters. Since Crowley began tweeting last May, he has told off dictators, criticized Congress and talked some baseball as well, 140 characters at a time. Among the best: "#KimJongIl's son attended an #EricClapton concert in Singapore? Actually, the #DearLeader himself would benefit from getting out more often." For The Cable's top 10 Crowley tweets, visit thecable.foreignpolicy.com.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company