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Mike Lee Has Nothing to Show for His Tough Talk on Japan

A month beyond the arbitrary deadline the Utah senator picked, his quest to free an imprisoned Navy lieutenant has seen no progress.
by Jim Swift
March 28, 2023
Mike Lee Has Nothing to Show for His Tough Talk on Japan
People show their support to U.S. Navy officer Lt. Ridge Alkonis during a demonstration while U.S. President Joe Biden hosts Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at White House in Washington D.C., United States on January 13, 2023. Lt. Ridge Alkonis has been reported to the Tokyo Detention Center in July after a Japanese court found him guilty of negligent driving in the death of two pedestrians in Fujinomiya, Japan, on May 2021. (Photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Last month, Senator Mike Lee gave Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida a reckless, feckless deadline: Release Lt. Ridge Alkonis, a Navy officer who has been imprisoned in Japan since last summer after being convicted of negligent driving causing the deaths of two people in an accident outside a noodle shop on the slopes of Mt. Fuji, back into U.S. custody by the end of the month—or else.

Or else what? As I wrote in early February, there are limits to what Lee, as a senator, can do to force Japan to act, and the strategy he’s pursuing will probably backfire, resulting in Alkonis serving his full sentence in Japanese custody while also damaging relations between the United States and Japan at a time when regional tensions are high and getting higher. In the language of Three-card Monte, Lee is facing what any player would recognize as a classic lose-lose-lose-we’re-all-losers-and-we-all-lose situation.

As Lee’s arbitrary deadline of February 28 approached, he tweeted ominously—tagging Kishida—“you’ve got 7 hours.” Then his Twitter Blue account was inexplicably suspended. (Turns out it was “flagged for impersonation.”) The arbitrary deadline passed.

It’s now been a month. Has anything happened to U.S-Japanese relations? No. Has Lee introduced any legislation related to Alkonis? No—not yet.

However, the day after his deadline, Lee did give a speech about Alkonis on the floor of the Senate. The next day, he tweeted a video of it at Kishida, saying “I’m just getting started.” Indeed.

On Twitter, Lee has applauded the passage of a concurrent resolution in the Utah state legislature (since signed by Utah’s governor) that “encourages” Congress, where Lee serves, to

formally review the Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and Japan [and] investigate the circumstances surrounding the investigation and trial of Navy Lieutenant Ridge Alkonis to ensure that American service members are being properly treated and adequately protected while serving in Japan.

The resolution also “encourages” Congress to refer Alkonis’s case to the “Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs”—not that that’s any likelier to happen than the first two requested actions. Similar legislation has been introduced in Alabama.

Were Republicans in the majority in the Senate, Lee might be able to get a hearing on the issue, even though he’s not on any of the committees of jurisdiction. In the minority, he’s got nowhere to go. And while Republicans are in charge in the House, it’s not clear that anything is going to happen there, either. They’re too focused on Hunter Biden.

So what do you do when you don’t have realistic legislative options, when you’re not temperamentally inclined to seek out allies across the aisle, and when you’ve hurt your cause by making imprudent threats?

If you’re Mike Lee, you just keep posting.

At almost one in the morning in the middle of the work week in mid-March, the senator posted an embarrassing and belabored version of the “trade offer” meme, again tagging the Japanese prime minister. In a reply to a friendly account minutes later, he sent out a particularly ugly message, suggesting that the whole situation “would never have happened” under Kishida’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated last July.

Lee said in his speech that “patience in Washington has grown thin.” For Lee, perhaps—but it’s not clear that American lawmakers have lost their patience with Japan.

I reached out to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul to see if he is on board with his fellow Republican’s approach to Kishida and Japanese-American relations, and if any hearings were planned. I also reached out to Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.)—who invited Alkonis’s wife Brittany to the State of the Union address last month, where she got to meet President Biden—and to Lt. Alkonis’s congressman, Mike Levin, a Democrat from California, to see if they are simpatico with Lee. I did not hear back from any of them on those questions.

However, Rep. Westerman’s press secretary replied with a studied deflection: “The Congressman was proud to welcome Brittany Alkonis to the U.S. Capitol as his guest for this year’s SOTU, and he is continuing to pray for the safety of Ridge, and peace for his family while they continue to advocate for his quick release.” I expect Lee is getting a lot of polite looks these days from colleagues in the halls of the Capitol who find they just don’t have the time to meet right now, but maybe next week?

If Lee’s political quest to secure Alkonis’s release appears to be going poorly, the public-relations side of the project seems to be having troubles of its own.

When published a detailed and nuanced story about Alkonis earlier this month—the headline characterized the case as “tragic, conflicting, and now politicized,” all of which is true—a spokesman for the imprisoned lieutenant, Jonathan Franks, pounced on the publication, accusing the writers of offenses ranging from mishandling facts to anti-Mormon prejudice:

I’d seen this movie before: Leveling accusations of factual errors is Franks’s stock play when he encounters a story that doesn’t reflect the narrative he’s selling. (I came in for similar treatment last month.) After lighting up the reporters for their alleged offenses, he then ignores their offers to correct factual mistakes. (Again: Much the same thing happened to me.) It’s almost as though correcting the factual record wasn’t the point of Franks’s attention-getting attacks.

Such tactics aren’t going to endear anyone but the already convinced to Alkonis’s cause. Similarly, Lee’s wheel-spinning and deadline-setting don’t do much to hide his inaction otherwise. One floor speech and some tweets aren’t going to give the prime minister of Japan a reason to dramatically and controversially intervene in his own country’s judicial processes.

And sadly, all this sound and fury signifying nothing has, if anything, made it even more likely that Lt. Alkonis will have to complete his three-year sentence in Japanese custody.

If Alkonis somehow gets released into American care after all, it will likely be in spite of Lee’s and Franks’s efforts, not because of them.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.