When Marshall Green was sent by Richard Nixon as Ambassador to keep a close eye on Gough Whitlam, some said his was the first serious American appointment in our history. Harry Harris, for different reasons, may turn out to be another.
It came as no surprise to know that Harry Harris is to succeed John Berry and Jeffrey Bleich, both friends of Obama, as US Ambassador to Australia. Bleich, a California lawyer, spoke In Brisbane late last year at a Griffith Integrity event, deploring the decline of truth and the rise of militarism in public life. We are unlikely to hear such sentiments from Admiral Harris, who like the military appointees who surround President Trump, has life-long experience in giving but also obeying orders. If loose lips sink ships, Admiral Harris has never personally lost one. But on several visits to Australia he has made no secret of what the US expects of us militarily in the South China Sea.
Julie Bishop may have trouble explaining to him her reservations about that, and about Australia’s dealings with Iran and Syria. Marise Payne may present the opposite view. Defence grows exponentially, while the Australian foreign service is a political mendicant, as is the State Department under Rex Tillerson. The Ambassador-designate is sure to be warmly welcomed by the Governor-General, Peter Cosgrove, by former Ambassador to Washington Kim Beazley, and by the military-industrial-security enthusiasts who swarm in Canberra. When Marshall Green was sent as Richard Nixon’s Ambassador (1969-73) to keep a close eye on Gough Whitlam, some said he was the first serious American appointee in our history. Harris, in quite different circumstances and for different reasons, may turn out to be another (Canberra Times FEBRUARY 10 2018. President Donald Trump nominates Harry Harris for Australia ambassador).
Harris has won a long string of decorations during his naval career of 40 years, ending as commander of the United States Armed Forces in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. In that capacity he knew Australia well, leading the American side in Operation Talisman Sabre. On his visits here he was widely reported as accusing Beijing of creating a ‘great wall of sand’ with its militarisation of disputed islands in the South China Sea, and of being the ‘owner of the trust deficit’ in Asia. His appointment as the first US Ambassador from the military to Canberra makes clear the agenda Washington has in mind for Australia.
Harry Binkley Harris Jr. (born 1956) is different in other ways. He is the first Asian-American to become an Admiral in the US Navy, and is its highest-ranking Japanese American. He was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a father who was a chief petty officer on the US Yokosuka naval base. Harris’ later enthusiasm for the pivot to Asia and for ‘push-back’ in the South China Sea may be cultural as well as national. In breaks from his naval career, he graduated in 1992 with a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. As an Arthur S. Moreau Scholar, he studied international relations and ethics of war at Oxford, and received Master of Arts in National Security Studies in 1994 at Georgetown University where he was a Fellow in the School of Foreign Service. His wife Bruni (Brunhilde Kempf Bradley), is a 1984 US Naval Academy graduate and former Navy commander.
After Australians in Canberra have explored these connections with Ambassador Harris they may then inquire about his time as Commander, Joint Task Force Guantanamo from 2006, when the deaths of three Muslim prisoners were reported as suicides. Harris said he believed what they did was ‘not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us’ (Wikipedia, ‘Admiral Harry Harris’). He ordered an investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), whose heavily redacted report was published in August 2008 (Main article: Guantanamo Bay homicide accusations. Main article: Guantanamo Bay detention camp suicide attempts). A legal report criticised inconsistencies in official accounts of the deaths and suggested gross negligence or an attempted cover-up of homicide, which may have been due to torture under interrogation. On 18 January 2010, Harper’s Magazine published a story suggesting the men had died as a result of accidental manslaughter due to torture. This was backed by an NBC News investigation, based on an account by four former guards at Guantanamo Bay.
The Ambassador is likely to be more forthcoming about what the US and President Trump (who condones torture) expect of Australia. If so, he will expose the dilemma at the heart of our foreign and defence policies, the ‘trust deficit’ most of our leaders prefer not to discuss. So here are some more questions for him. The Prime Minister has said we are joined at the hip to our US ally, but can we rely on an indebted and over-extended America to defend us? If we can’t, should we not stop pleading with the Americans to ‘stay involved’ in the region? If neither we nor the US can prevent the rise of China, what would a war with China achieve? Isn’t more diplomacy and less militancy the answer?
Dr Alison Broinowski, formerly an Australian diplomat, is Vice President of Australians for war Powers Reform and of Honest History, and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.