Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Command in Hawaii, was slated to start work as ambassador to Australia this month. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Trump White House announced on April 24 that Harris would be assigned to South Korea.
The assignment was unprecedented at multiple levels. Assigning a military officer as ambassador to Korea when Seoul is trying to develop peaceful ties with North Korea, and the rest of East Asia, is extraordinary. Assigning a military officer who has close ties with the far-right in Japan is also extraordinary, granted the sensitivity about Japan’s colonial domination of Korea.
The fact that Harris was born in Japan to a Japanese mother is not a reason to oppose his appointment. Yet his being awarded the “Order of the Rising Sun” at exactly the same moment he was assigned at ambassador to Korea was extremely odd.
And then there is that matter of his role at the Guantanamo Prison camp at the time that torture and abuse were carried out within a carefully constructed legal limbo. In normal times, Harris’ role in that blatantly illegal operation would be enough to end a career, at the very least.
But these are not normal times.
Many in Australia were less than pleased that this combative and virulently anti-Chinese military officer was appointed to Australia in the first place.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been much more willing to collaborate with this confrontational posture towards China than was Tony Abbot, or Kevin Rudd before him. Yet Turnbull is still struggling to keep the opposition even in the conservative business community under control.
Harris was desperately needed by the anti-China factions in the U.S. military to shore things up in Australia and help stamp out local opposition to the drive for war with China. The economic pressure from Beijing, and from the domestic mining, agriculture and educational sectors in Australia, was forcing even the Goldman Sachs protege Turnbull to buckle.
The reasons for assigning Harris were no mystery to insiders. Harris is not any military officer. He is the leader of a drive to push for military, economic and cultural confrontation with China across Asia. He is a taunting and provocative speaker who is not focused on professionalism, or the details of military hardware.
But there is one other country that is pivotal to the drive to confront China that has significant factions in government and in industry willing stand up to defend ties with China: South Korea.
A hard-right retired army general, James Thurman, was already lined up to be U.S. ambassador to Korea. Why was this last minute request made by CIA director Mike Pompeo (now secretary of state) that Harris be sent to Seoul instead?
Although the documentation concerning this sudden shift may not be released in our lifetimes, the intentions are clear.
Recent negotiations between North and South Korea resulted in an agreement for the first Inter-Korean summit in 11 years and the joint statement issued at that summit on April 28 demonstrated that the both sides have reached consensus across the board for mutual cooperation that could, in effect, end the state of war between the two nations in a matter of weeks, or months.
Whether Washington wants a peace treaty or not could end up being an irrelevant detail.
Such rapid progress in inter-Korean relations went further than Trump’s nannies in the Pentagon could stand and they judged that it was time to call in a heavyweight like Admiral Harris to make sure the Koreans did not get carried away.
Harris is not a pawn of the powers in the Pentagon who are deeply worried that a breakthrough in negotiations could alter the U.S. posture in Asia, and tip Washington towards military retrenchment at the very moment that they were working overtime to create a state of war with China to justify a massive increase in the number of fighter planes, warships and submarines.
He is one of the central players in the military driving the push for massive military confrontation with China.
To put it bluntly, few in the federal government are willing to go as far, and to do so in such a ruthless manner, as is Harry Harris.
The Koreas have launched a process of conciliation with North Korea, coupled with serious discussions about economic and political integration with China, Japan and Russia, that threatens to go from a trickle to a waterfall. Someone needs to be there who will not hesitate to do what needs to be done to stop that process.
How Dirty Harry got on the fast track
Admiral Harry Harris’ career took off in the years after he served as commander of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp from March 2006 to June 2007. The grotesque tale of how this cluster of black sites (supposedly not subject to the Geneva Conventions according to the Bush administration) served as the location for the sadistic abuse of prisoners in a manner that skirted all accountability has been described in detail by a former guard Joseph Hickman in his book “Murder at Camp Delta.”
Hickman focuses a large section on the death of three prisoners during Harris’s administration from what were described as “suicides.” The initial report was that the prisoners killed themselves by stuffing rags down their own throats (although we cannot be sure that they were in fact suicides).
Six years of research led Hickman to the conclusion that the prison deliberately administered overdoses of anti-malarial drugs with psychoactive side effects to psychologically destroy the detainees. All this happened under Harris’s watch, if not direct supervision.
Harris was the one calling the shots in what Hickman characterizes as “America’s battle lab.”
John Kiriakou, former employee of the CIA, was the only one to go to jail for his actions related to the torture programs run at the time — and he was sentenced for going public about those criminal actions! He remarked about the program run by Harris at the time, “There are credible allegations that the program included human experimentation. I can’t even think about it. It makes me sick.”
That is to say that Guantanamo resembled the notorious Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army that carried out covert chemical warfare research on living prisoners.
Nor was Harris the only such administrator of a torture camp who has been promoted by the Trump administration. The current candidate for CIA director Gina Haspel also oversaw extensive torture programs, and has risen up the ranks as a result.
Prisoners held in sensory isolation in the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp/ Reuters
Harry Harris not only did not ask for an investigation into the true cause of the deaths, he publicly referred to the suicides in this grotesque manner:
“They are smart, they are creative, and they are committed. They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” (Mother Jones)
That is to say that Harris presented the suicides of prisoners under horrible psychological abuse as a nefarious conspiracy of inhuman enemies.
Harris’s shameless behavior did not result in his dismissal, let alone his prosecution, but rather led to a series of high-profile promotions, culminating in his appointment as commander of Pacific Fleet in 2013. And then, unexpectedly, he was tapped in May of that year to serve as commander of the entire Pacific Command located in Hawaii.
The timing of that promotion also was no accident.
The Pacific Command was a hotbed of discontent about the mindless militarism that had decimated strategic planning and accountability in the military at the time. The Pacific Command was home to a significant faction of officers who spoke openly about the need to treat climate change as the most important security threat and who were willing to entirely rethink the concept of security.
Many of these officers and professors felt that that cooperation with China, on climate change and on other security issues, was not only possible, but essential for the U.S.
The Pacific Command had committed over the previous decade to a series of large-scale projects aimed at developing electric batteries and various forms of alternative energy infrastructure.
The Pacific Command had launched a global project to promote collaboration between nations in the Pacific and East Asia in the response to climate change and to establish networks for humanitarian responses to related disasters.
In so many words, the Pacific Command was laying the foundations for new set of alliances with partner nations that was directly aimed at climate change and if that project had been scaled up, it would have posed a direct challenge to the military alliance system that has defined the U.S. military since the Korean War (Andrew DeWit).
As a result, the Pacific Command was engaged in broad discussions with China about possible collaboration, especially related to climate change. Those efforts were in part reflected in the declaration of Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping at the Hangzhou summit (September 3, 2016) in which both nations agreed to cooperate in the response to climate change and to increase military collaboration.
All these moves were deeply irritating to those in the Pacific Command who wanted to stick with overpriced ships and fighter planes that assured big revenue for contractors (and cushy retirement packages for officers).
But what made those conservatives see red was the decision of Pacific Command to include the Chinese navy in the biannual RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific Exercise). Not only was Pacific Command drifting away from the China threat mantra common in the corridors of the Pentagon, it was asserting policy independence from K Street lobbyists and from other far-right organizations on the mainland for whom the “China threat” was not only strategic, but a part of racist politics.
The large number of Asian Americans in Pacific Command no doubt had something to do with the hesitation to buy into such posturing.
But those pushing for a commitment to climate change in the Pacific Command had no intention of backing down even as the conservative backlash grew. The battle came to a head on March 9, 2013, when the commander of the Pacific Command at the time, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, delivered a talk at Harvard University in which he declared that climate change was the primary long-term security threat in the Pacific region.
Locklear was stating a fact so obvious that his audience should have yawned, but in fact this statement was revolutionary in its implications (Boston Globe).
Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, former commander of the Pacific Command / AFP
Locklear, was the representative of a powerful faction in the Pacific Command, known as the “Harvard of the military” for the high intellectual achievement of its members, that wanted to put climate change front and center in security policy and to push for the elimination of fossil fuels.
That effort at Pacific Command (and elsewhere) is best represented by the documentary movie “The Burden” made by military veterans on the negative impact of fossil fuels on not only the climate but also on military effectiveness.
If the right wing did not respond decisively, there was a serious danger that Locklear’s speech at Harvard would result in a fundamental shift in U.S. strategic policy, that is to say a move away from the “war on terror” to something more complex with a strong focus on climate change.
The powers that be, whether those benefiting from the budgets for special forces and intelligence, or those making a fortune off of the traditional carrier battle groups and finicky fighter planes, could not tolerate this move.
The attacks on Locklear within the military were fast and furious (although for the most part not public). Within two months he was unceremoniously replaced by Harry Harris.
Harris was assigned to the Pacific Command for the same reason he was assigned to Guantanamo: to keep a lid on dissent and to make sure that the worst in American policy went forward over the objections of working-level experts.
Harris was unable to end cooperation with China, or to eliminate research on climate change at the Pacific Command. But he did his damnedest.
In the process, Harris became a political figure to a degree unprecedented in the Pacific Command, giving numerous speeches in Japan (where Japanese think of him as a native son), in Australia and elsewhere in Asia and in the Pacific. His speeches were not objective assessments of strategic issues, or scientific analysis of serious issues, but openly political diatribes.
Harris could not control the fiercely independent study groups with tens of billions of dollars that had no intention of giving up their work on renewable energy and the environment. But he made sure that the discussion on security was focused on his beloved “freedom of navigation” campaigns.
“Freedom of navigation” is a catchy way of saying that the U.S. is obligated to send military vessels into the waters surrounding the islands claimed by China in the South China Sea regularly, often intentionally crossing over the 12 nautical mile EEZ (exclusive economic zone).
This is a needless provocation (imagine how the U.S. would respond if Chinese ships regularly sailed close to Hawaii) became central to the planning in the Pacific Command.
When Donald Trump came to power in 2017, the “war with China” factions in the military were his big supporters. It was not so much they had any particular organic tie to him, but rather that they wanted someone who would champion their cause.
Those officers stood out in opposition to the groups who planned for war with Russia, who planned for war with Iran, or those who were deeply invested in the “war on terror.” They also fought for control of the budget with those focused on non-traditional security issues like climate change, and with a host of smaller factions that nevertheless had access to immense budgets.
The shifting nature of the military
Although Harris, like Trump, has seized the spotlight by making inflammatory and insensitive statements to the press, he has also acquired his own loyal following. His abrasive style has a certain charm and he is perceived as a straight shooter.
The Navy Times cites China expert Bonnie Glaser saying, “He (Harris) speaks his mind and he speaks it publicly, so he’s something of a rarity.”
His remarks to the Armed Forces Committee in February are representative of such rhetoric.
“If USPACOM has to fight tonight, I don’t want it to be a fair fight. If it’s a knife fight, I want to bring a gun. If it’s a gun fight, I want to bring in the artillery, and the artillery of all of our allies.”
It is hard to imagine a more reckless and inflammatory statement for the commander of the Pacific Command to make. In effect, Harris is bragging that all the conventions concerning military relations that have kept the peace, and avoided wars, for the last 500 years do not apply to him.
Yet, for rank and file officers, frustrated by government bureaucrats who dish out harmless mush in order to avoid offending anyone, Harris comes across as a lively, refreshing figure.
But the increase in Harris’s influence is not merely a product of the rise in the fortunes of the “war with China” faction after Trump’s inauguration as president. It is linked to the growing power of the military as a whole in the U.S. government.
The collapse of civilian government in Washington after the 2016 election has meant that the military is increasingly the only part of the government that actually functions.
If we think of the gross waste produced by the American military, this statement may seem unbelievable, but oddly, for all its inflexibility, the military is protected from the direct interference of ruthless politicians and thus is still capable of long-term planning to a degree not found elsewhere in the Federal government.
American politics is incomprehensible because, at the moment that the military is playing an increasingly central role in the administration of the global system set up by the U.S. after World War II, military officers, whether fighting for justice or indulging in corruption, are completely inaccessible to the population and almost never the subject of investigative journalism.
The guidelines issued to military officers direct them to avoid social exchanges with ordinary citizens, and even with other branches of the government, or with other branches of the military.
Thus the rise of the impact of the military is as invisible as it is immense.
But the situation is more complex than even that. The rising importance of the military is not only a result of the collapse of civilian government, but also of the breakdown of civil society. Leading figures in academics, NGOs, business and other realms of civil society have become so poorly organized, and so cowardly, that more often than not it ends up being member of the military who shows the bravery, and the organizational skills, to take a stand.
The result has been the legends of Bradley (Chelsea) Manning, Edwin Snowden, Jeffrey Sterling, and any number of others who tales have not been told within the military and intelligence.
These individuals are clearly opposed to militarism, but their efforts within the military, ironically, strengthens the political role of the military. On issues like war with Iran, it is branches of the military, and not the Democratic Party, which plays the role of opposition party.
The masters of the university in this brave new world are the commanders of “geographic combatant commands” (Africa Command, Central Command, European Command, Northern Command, Pacific Command, Southern Command ) like Harris. They play a role in their “area of responsibility” that goes far beyond any ambassador. They control budgets that cannot be easily disrupted by the idiocies of politicians.
Yet their actions, and the uses of their budgets, are unknown to all but the few. Their names are rarely mentioned in popular newspapers that are packed with the ludicrous statements of powerless politicians. Certainly the heads of these commands have a greater capacity to mobilize resources and to implement policy than is the case for the hamstrung president Donald Trump, granted he gets unlimited media coverage (Michael Klare).
The Pacific Command, with access to a budget in the hundreds of billions of dollars, gives its commander spending power beyond that of the CEOs of the biggest corporations. He is capable of setting policies and enacting them without the clownish political fights of Washington D.C.
Harris is a profoundly different figure than the previous candidate for ambassador to South Korea, Professor Victor Cha of Georgetown University. Cha is an academic expert engaged in broad consulting work in Washington D.C. who demonizes North Korea in his writing as a means of legitimizing massive increases in military spending (and bringing in consulting contracts).
His work as Korea Chair and senior adviser at the think tank CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) formed part of a larger lobbying and public relations drive funded by major military contractors to drive up the military budget. Cha, however, also produced real research such as the book “Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle,” a study that avoids simplistic generalizations.
Harris is rather the leader of a faction within the U.S. military of one-star and two-star generals (admirals) who have latched on to the China threat as a cause celebre because of its potential to generate massive budgets and to increase their power.
The Koran for this group is the National Defense Strategy that was released to the public in unclassified form on January 19, 2018. The strategy put forth in this document marked a complete break with the “war on terror” that dominated by intelligence and special forces and a return to massive investments in ships and planes for a “real war” against a “peer competitor.”
The document speaks of an “increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order” that is attributed to the aggressive actions of China and Russia, and not to terrorist groups, let alone to institutional and structural problems within the U.S. itself.
As the distinction between finance and trade, and then between trade and security, has vanished in the chaos of governance by Trump, Harris’s influence has only increased because he intentionally blurs the lines between security, economy and culture. Whereas Trump is concerned mainly with Trump, Harris is concerned with representing a larger body of officers with real budgets and real expertise who have a clear goal.
The U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee held a day of hearings on February 14, 2018, at which Harris was the sole witness. Harris went on for hours about how the largest and most bloated military in the world lacked sufficient funding to respond to an increasing threat from China.
He demanded a move to prepare for a war with China and demanded massive increases in military spending from Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. He also called for greater participation in the resistance to China from France, the U.K. and India.
The testimony was, to put it simply, over the top. But we should not underestimate the amount of money that can be made by retired officers who consult for, or who invest in, the corporations contracted for building or maintaining the ships and planes to be funded under the 717 billion USD National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 (much more if we include the classified portions) that is being discussed by that very committee at this moment.
The Trump administration has declared a silent war on institutions. Government has become the enemy and institutional chaos is considered by most Republicans to be a political positive. The making of policy via late-night tweets avoids any review or accountability, and eliminates any need for expert opinion in the decision-making process. This contempt by the White House for the details of policy also increases the power of military factions.
We have reached the point of no return, the final metastasis of the privatization of the functions of the U.S. military that started in the late Clinton administration.
More than ever, war is about profit; war is about rising stocks and cozy retirement nests for high-ranking military officers. The military has meshed with investment banks, with the technology companies and military contractors who pay lobbyists and others to bay for war incessantly on K Street, in the Dirksen Senate Building and in election campaigns in regions where the manufacture of weapons provides the only substantial jobs.
I do not want to promote a myth that military generals were once pure and righteous. However, we can observe a marked decline in the nature of military leadership over the last 20 years. There is literally no one around like General John Marshall, a thoughtful and broadly-read policy intellectual who was deeply engaged in the efforts to establish reconciliation between the Communists and the Nationalists in China in the 1940s.
Marshall took on an impossible task that offered him no rewards because it was what he thought of as his duty. So also the five-star general Dwight Eisenhower warned of the “military industrial complex” in his farewell address. He clearly was not aiming at lucrative consulting contracts with military contractors. In fact, for him to do so at that time would have been considered shameful.
Today he would be considered a fool to refuse such an arrangement.
The decline in leadership in the congress has been even more precipitous. Perhaps the reader recalls politicians like Jacob Javits, James Fulbright , or Adlai Stevenson from the middle of the 20th century, politicians whom, granted their flaws, were deeply dedicated to public service and who worked day and night to master the details of policy and to develop long-term strategies for the country.
Such politicians do not exist anywhere today. Perhaps the last such figure was Paul Simon who retired back in the Pleistocene (1997). The people who go by the term “politician” today have only the vaguest idea of what policy means. They spend their time trying to persuade people to give them money and creating an image for themselves in the media that will draw people to them like children to a Popsicle stand.
Compared with most congressmen, Harry Harris comes across as an expert.
Harris resembles the proconsuls of the late Roman Empire who appropriated the authority that belonged to the senate during the republic. Or perhaps a closer analogy would be to the class of warlords who emerged in China during the late Qing dynasty (late nineteenth century and early twentieth century).
The warlords of late imperial China cultivated close economic relations with their subordinates and obtained immense political power because they could set up essentially independent economic and political entities.
As the government of late imperial China decayed, the empire was carved up into spheres of influence dominated by warlords (often with support from various foreign powers). They held sway through the 1940s.
Those political generals (warlords), for all their flaws, had greater expertise than the hangers-on who surrounded the Empress Dowager Cixi in the Forbidden Palace. Frustrated progressives found themselves turning to the more progressive military leaders like General Yuan Shikai to carry out reforms that the central government could not even conceptualize. But General Yuan evolved into a ruthless politician in his own right who made an unsuccessful bid to crown himself emperor.
What will Harris do in Seoul?
As the authority of the US federal government declines, and individual military commands expand their power, Koreans (and other Asians) will be increasingly confused. Koreans lawmakers assume that the castrated State Department still has some say over what happens on the Peninsula.
Few have grasped the possibility that the Pacific Command is a power in and of itself, that is only nominally under the command of the Secretary of Defense, and that it is in the process of forming complex ties with powerful institutions around the world that defy simple understanding. The complex net of classified military, intelligence and economic agreements undertaken by the Department of Defense and the commands is disturbing similar to the secret diplomacy that brought about World War I.
A serious consideration of Harris and his background has been avoided by the Korean media perhaps because of the need to maintain Trump’s support for closer relations with North Korea.
Perhaps Harris’ role will to make sure that rapidly unfolding integration with North Korea does not lead Seoul to move away from a military alliance that many in the military want to be focused on the Chinese threat.
But no matter how much flag waving is done, it will be near impossible to keep Koreans, even conservative Koreans, in line with a hyped-up China threat. The growing economic power of China, and the corresponding decline in the quality of American diplomatic engagement in the region, not to mention the explicitly racist policies of the Trump administration, have not go unnoticed here.
Washington’s decision to distance itself from international law and from the response to climate change has also done much unspoken damage.
There will also lots of hard lifting for Harris if he is tasked to get Seoul lined up behind a catastrophic war with Iran. There is literally no one in Korea who wants such a conflict. Moreover, the resulting showdown with Russia that will result from such a military action is even less popular in South Korea than is the unpopular China threat.
Finally, there remains the question of whether Harris’s appointment to ambassador in Seoul is a promotion or a demotion. Of course he was sent to South Korea to throw his authority around.
But what will happen to those obstinate factions in Pacific Command working on unimportant topics like climate change? The push to keep South Korea lined up with Australia and Japan for a massive conflict with China will take all of Harris’ time, no?
The May 2, 2018 edition of “The Nelson Report,” written by the maven of Asia Policy in the U.S., Chris Nelson, refers to fascinating discussion at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s annual “US-Japan Alliance” conference in Washington D.C.
Nelson asked the retired Japanese admiral Takei Tomohisa whether the navies of Japan, the U.S., Australia and India should plan to work together with China in the response to climate change and to the resulting rise in sea levels. According to the entry, there was no one present at the event disagreed with the suggestion.
What might be the opinion in the Pacific Command on security today, especially in light of the increasingly catastrophic impact of climate change on the oceans? As the old Navy song goes, “When the catfish is away, the micefish will play.”