Japan and West Germany, two of the richest nations in the world, have ducked the role they should be playing in the Persian Gulf crisis. Putting aside, for the moment, the question of whether either of the old Axis powers should contribute military forces, they both have been stingy in their financial support, floating one alibi after another.
Japan, pressured by Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, has offered a total of $4 billion. That's real money, but hardly a fair share of the burden for a country that is six times more dependent on Persian Gulf oil than the United States is.
"If they had been smart," says former secretary of state Cyrus Vance, "they would have offered to take care of the entire refugee problem in the Middle East -- providing transportation to get them out, including medical and other assistance, and help in resettling them. The whole world would have been grateful."
Taizo Watanabe, spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry, complains that this is unfair. He says no nation has responded as quickly to American demands as has Japan, "but we are not going to write a blank check -- we have to consider the Japanese taxpayers."
Vance, a strong defender of and counselor to Japanese officials for many years, scoffs at Japanese excuses, such as the suggested unwillingness of labor unions to go along with a dramatic effort like rescue of the refugees.
"I don't know what a refugee rescue would have cost them," he says. "It would have been a lot, but it would have been worth it." The global image of Japan as interested mainly in piling up export profits might have been altered.
The German response, says Vance, "has been disgraceful. They have been no help at all. They have done less than England, France or Italy." Even more than the Japanese, the Germans have been counting their money, despite being three times more dependent on gulf oil than is the United States.
The Germans don't want to be distracted from their euphoria over rebuilding the fatherland. Pressured, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl agreed to put up about $2 billion to foot some of the Persian Gulf bills. While not quite pleading poverty, high German officials point to the money that they're spending on unification with East Germany, for reconstruction elsewhere in Eastern Europe and to resettle Soviet troops.
"When we are asked for more," said a German official at the IMF-World Bank meeting here, "I think it is a bit short-minded not to consider that the money we are spending on the withdrawal of Soviet troops is also in the interest of the United States and of the international community... . We can't shoulder everything at one time point."
But for many months, German officials from Kohl on down have been saying how easily West Germany has been able to manage the costs that go along with unification without pain.
Adding in a real share of the Persian Gulf costs would probably add some pain. But the crisis is bound to hurt everybody. The bottom line is that Germany, like Japan, can and should bear a larger part of the financial costs -- especially since the military burden is overwhelmingly assumed by the United States.
That brings up the touchy question of the extent to which Germany and Japan should contribute military support, in the form of combat troops and equipment. Both the Japanese and Germans plead that their constitutions, adopted at the end of World War II, bar such participation, although Kohl has said he's willing to send troops if he can overcome domestic political opposition to it.
Some influential Japanese are trying to convince Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu that pleading constitutional barriers is a cop-out. For example, Seizaburo Sato, who was close to former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, told Time magazine that, "The talk of constitutional constraints and demons of the past is all one big alibi. We mustn't miss a golden opportunity to prove we recognize our responsibilities."
But I, for one, do not find it so easy to put down the demons of the past -- Japan's or Germany's. Their military excesses in Europe and Asia are burned into the memory of too many people. It would be tragic if a mistaken assessment of burden-sharing needs in the gulf provided a backdoor to Japanese or German remilitarization. Beyond noncombat forces, as Kaifu seems to endorse, Japanese or Germans in uniform in the gulf aren't needed.
What is both needed and fair to demand is more hard cash: The reality of the current situation is that, at the moment, Japan and Germany are flush and the United States is not. The world was lucky that Bush had available and was willing to commit American forces to global security, and luckier still that the Saudis put aside their cultural inhibitions to accept outside troops on their soil.
Now, it's up to America's allies to pitch in with military help from all except Japan and Germany -- and from those two, real money, please.