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Gwen’s Take: Caroline Kennedy and life on the back burner

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  July 25, 2014 at 10:32 AM EST
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

The list is long. Ukraine. Israel. Gaza. Russia. Afghanistan. Iran. Syria. Libya. Nigeria. Even the Netherlands.

The Obama administration has so many urgent items on its agenda, it is inevitable that other things get shoved aside, including nuclear standoffs and territorial disputes on the other side of the world.

Into this world of multiple distractions has walked Caroline Kennedy, heir to the Camelot legacy and now U.S. ambassador to Japan.

Kennedy’s posting to Japan raised eyebrows among diplomats who noted her chief ties there had been established during her honeymoon. But the Japanese embraced her arrival as a sign that the U.S. thought enough of the relationship to send one of its foremost celebrities.

The sheen soon dulled, especially when Kennedy criticized the annual Japanese dolphin drive hunt, which she called inhumane. Then she took Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to task for angering both China and South Korea by paying tribute at a shrine to Japanese war dead that includes those convicted of war crimes.

But when the ambassador arrived for our interview at the State Department this week, she appeared confident and certain that things on the back burner are cooking along quite well.

“I think it’s really hard to really appreciate fully here at home, when there’s so much going on in the rest of the world as well, how important Japan is as an ally of the United States,” she told me.

But Japan’s concerns are regional – especially with a nuclear North Korea periodically firing test missiles, and China claiming islands Japan says it controls.

Kennedy sees room for accommodation with China. “I think that Japan would like to have a hotline with China,” she told me. “They are really taking this very seriously. They train, they approached this very responsibly. They debate this. They’re very transparent with other countries in the region, so I think that everybody is really looking to Japan to be a helpful, solid leader on these issues.”

But Kennedy’s boss – Secretary of State John Kerry – is otherwise preoccupied, with intractable world leaders like Bashar al Assad and Vladimir Putin, and with attempts to broker an end to deadly wars in Israel, Gaza and Ukraine. As a result, the administration’s once-promised pivot to Asia appears to have languished. But Kennedy insists it’s still vibrant.

“The Asia pivot — rebalance I think is really how people see it — is absolutely happening,” Kennedy insisted. “And it’s having a major impact on the region. The president’s visit [in April of this year] was so important, and he visited our treaty partners, Japan and Korea, who are two of our strongest allies in the world, as well as the Philippines and Malaysia, announced new agreements with the Philippines. So I think that the U.S. presence in Asia is one of the reasons why it is so stable and prosperous.”

The last time I’d seen Caroline Kennedy, she was up to her ears in domestic politics – campaigning for Barack Obama and still recovering from her own abortive effort to run for office. She was tense.

She has now become the very model of a careful, well-spoken diplomat. Life’s not so bad on the back burner.