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Visit of President Obama and deployment of US troops in Darwin

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 23 Nov 2011

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (00:43): by leave-I rise to acknowledge that I got just as carried away as everybody else on the occasion of the visit last week by the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. I was looking forward to the chance to see him up close and to get a sense of the rhetorical power that first caught the attention of the world at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. In that regard, he did not disappoint. His speech to the Australian parliament was beautifully crafted. He held 226 Australian parliamentarians and a packed public gallery spellbound. After the oration we saw him work the room with ease, flashing his smile and taking his own time to meet the MPs who had just given him a long-standing ovation. To me, at least, he seems to be a genuinely warm and charismatic human being.

Listening to the speech, the 500-year arc of history, the drive to a more perfect union and the liberating power of democratic ideals fought through the second half of the 20th century hung in the air with tangible force. A few minutes into his speech it became apparent, firstly, that this hypnotic invocation of shared sacrifice and global democratisation was intended for a much larger audience, listening in from the US and Beijing respectively, and secondly, that it was being delivered from a parallel universe.

In this universe, winding down two successful forced injections of democracy into Iraq and Afghanistan frees up nuclear armed military assets for further peace building in the Asia-Pacific region. In this universe, the democratic process in America has not been crippled by massive parasitic corporate interests that have brought the country to the brink of financial and social collapse. In this universe, all Australians will automatically accept the newest in a line of more than 1,000 US military bases scattered across the globe, despite the unfortunate lapse in democratic due process that saw not a single Australian voter asked if they thought it would be a good idea. In this universe, whistleblowers and journalists at the Wikileaks organisation can be pronounced summarily guilty by the highest office bearers in the country and threatened with extrajudicial killing. The President can riff beautifully on the rule of law, transparent institutions and equal administration of justice.

In this universe, above all, amnesia must prevail. In order for the United States to take its place as the guardian of democracy, a few details are required to be quite aggressively forgotten. Just considering the postwar period, the US has actively supported the overthrow of democratically elected governments, including but not limited to the administration in Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960, in Brazil in 1964, in Ghana in 1966, in Chile in 1973, in Argentina in 1976, in Guatemala again in 1993 and probably in Haiti in 2004. There has been well-documented, overt and often harmful US interference in Iraq on multiple occasions since 1963 and in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Angola, Somalia and possibly Venezuela. In addition, sustained financial, political and military support has been provided for decades to dictatorships in places like the Philippines, Nicaragua, Panama, Chile and medieval fiefdoms like Saudi Arabia.

Oddly, in a speech largely focused on the power of democracy, the President barely mentioned the Arab spring that has rocked North Africa and the Middle East this year with a grassroots pro-democracy tide. It is odd until you recall that almost to the bitter end the US government was a key backer of the very regimes in Tunisia and Egypt that were toppled by ordinary people putting their lives on the line. Obviously this is not something that is specific to the United States. All major powers throughout history have behaved that way. China is behaving exactly that way at the moment in Burma and across Africa. The Soviet Union, towards the end of its reign, behaved the same way, as did the British Empire and the Spanish before that.

This is not to say that the US has not been a force for positive change in many places. The US government's sanctions against the vile dictatorship in Burma are actually stronger than Australia's. And the President's acknowledgment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's struggle will help remind pro-democracy campaigners in Burma that they are not forgotten. But no such complexity or nuance seemed possible in the address last Thursday. President Obama, in asking us to accept the United States as a unilateral force for good deeds in the world, has offered Australians a more poetically crafted version of President Bush's admonition that 'you are either with us or against us'.

With this simple logic accepted uncritically by the government and with the nauseating submission by Mr Tony Abbott, of course the next step in the Asian century is for a permanent US military presence in Australia. Can we forget, please, this concept of a marine base hosting 2,500 US marines on a rotating basis? Because of course that is just the label on the box. Once established, the facility will take whatever the shape the US government requires it to, as has happened at literally hundreds of installations from Subic Bay in the Philippines to the sprawling complexes of Germany, Japan and the UK and dotted right across the Pacific.

Without a whisper of consultation, the Australian government has taken us into uncharted territory. There are, we are aware, more than 1,000 US bases around the world. The US anthropology professor David Vine says that these represent the largest collection of bases in world history. He adds:

Officially the Pentagon counts 865 base sites, but this notoriously unreliable number omits all our bases in Iraq (likely over 100) and Afghanistan (80 and counting), among many other well-known and secretive bases.

He continues:
Where are all those military bases outside the military zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, and what purpose do they serve?
These are questions that Australians really should be asking.

More than half a century after World War II and the Korean War, wrote Vines, we still have 268 bases in Germany, 124 in Japan and 87 in South Korea. What are these bases in Germany and Japan actually for?

With so little known about what form these bases will take in reality, a couple of questions are in order. It would have been the Prime Minister to have asked them last week, but I suspect that she did not. Firstly, why are the people of Okinawa, an island chain to the south of the Japanese mainland, so desperate to get rid of the massive US facilities there? Their campaign succeeded in changing the government in Japan in 2009 and forcing the United States, with great reluctance, to begin casting around for alternate hosts. If we want to know why they have so fiercely resisted the presence of US forces in Okinawa, we can take a few hints. It has to do with the noise impacts of living in a practice war zone, widespread chemical contamination, periodic rapes and sexual assaults, unexploded munitions, drug abuse, prostitution and the enormous financial cost to the Japanese government.

In May 2010 a survey of the Okinawan people conducted by In May 2010 a survey of the Okinawan people conducted by Mainichi shimbun, a mainstream newspaper in Japan, found that 71 per cent of Okinawans surveyed thought that the presence of marines on Okinawa was not necessary-and I am not sure if any opinion poll has yet been taken in Australia-with 15 per cent saying that they thought that it was necessary.

From 1952 to 2004, there were approximately 200,000 accidents and crimes involving US soldiers in which 1,076 Japanese civilians died. Over 90 per cent of the incidents were vehicle or traffic related. In 1995, the abduction and rape of 12-year-old Okinawan school girl by two US marines and one US sailor led to demands for the removal of all US military bases in Japan. This helped change the government in Japan in 2009 and it is the reason why the political situation there has so radically changed. The incoming government in Japan immediately about faced, but we can still see enormous pressure to move the military installations or at least some of the heavy footprint in Okinawa out of Japan. And now the United States is casting around for alternate sites. We should not imagine that this is simply something suffered merely by the people of Okinawa or even by people simply in the footprint of US bases. This is not something that occurs under one particular flag or another; this is just about the heavy imprint of military facilities, no matter which flag they fly.

I am interested in one of the few examples that I know of in which US military installations were contested non-violently by host populations and the US military left. People may know that the continuing post-war presence in Vieques in Puerto Rico by the United States Navy drew enormous protest and dissent from the host population there, angry mainly at the expropriation of land and the incredible environmental impacts of continual training bombardments by the United States Navy. Protests came to a head in 1999 when a native of Vieques, David Sanes, who was an employee of the US Navy, was killed by a bomb from a navy fighter that fell outside the impact template. He had been working as a security guard for the US Navy. That brought events in Vieques to the boil. Now the United States is gone and again US military commanders are looking for areas that they can bomb, areas that ships can dock in and places where soldiers can train. This will affect host populations, especially women. Alcohol consumption is also a problem.

We do not hear a great deal about the impact of military facilities on South Korea, but it is now something that Australians, particularly residents of the Northern Territory, are going to need to learn a great deal about very rapidly. This is now real. The Australian population has not been asked if we think that this is a good idea. We have been told. The announcement was obviously leaked to the Fairfax press last week. The President firmed that up during his address on Thursday. It appears that this drive to democracy that the United States has been spearheading around the world will not extend to the people of Australia, because we will not be asked. One South Korean woman told the press, 'Our government was one big pimp for the US military,' in a recent interview. That is something that we are going to need to get used to as well: the epidemic of sexual violence that surrounds bases with huge numbers of frustrated young people, mostly men.

My second question for the government is what control Australia will have over activities conducted on the base, imagining that it will go ahead.

For example, it appears that cluster munitions, which Australia was until recently part of the campaign to abolish, will be allowed to be stored there. But I am interested to know about nuclear weapons, depleted uranium munitions and other things that the ADF do not deploy, to their great credit, and have no intention of deploying.

This afternoon, my attention was drawn to a press release by the Cluster Munitions Coalition, who put out a statement acknowledging that the ALP caucus, to their enormous shame, appears to have voted not to amend its widely criticised cluster munitions prohibition bill, which was introduced into this place months ago and which disappeared off the Notice Paper when, to my understanding, sustained backbench opposition on both sides of this chamber caused defence and legal spokespeople to withdraw it and consider whether perhaps amendments would be required, and of course they are. The Cluster Munitions Coalition wrote:

The two key loopholes the Government has written into the Bill, which the Coalition supports, enable Australian troops to actively assist the USA in the use of cluster bombs and also explicitly permit the USA to stockpile its cluster bombs on Australian soil. These allowances blatantly disregard the whole intent of the Convention which aims to eradicate these weapons for all time.

That is shameful if it is true. And for this base the Australian government will be talking about a policy of not storing nuclear weapons on Australian soil, which this government is committed to eradicating from the world, yet, in my view, unless this is enacted into law, the US government will eventually be doing just that because that is how they behave.

My third question is: what happens in the event that the US government uses the base for a military invention that, heaven forbid, the Australian government or the Australian public might not support? That is something that has clearly not been thought through. Australia has its own regional security interests in the Asia-Pacific region and they are not always going to be in perfect alignment with those of the United States. But what happens if the US chooses this platform or this base or this lily pad, or whatever the jargon is these days, for a surge deployment into a war zone that Australia actually thinks is a terrible idea, as many Australians did on the Afghanistan deployment and a vast majority of Australians did in terms of the invasion of Iraq? What will we do if these US facilities-not just communications bases, because goodness knows we have plenty of experience of those in Australia-are used in an actual deployment of US troops, aircraft, munitions and vessels from Darwin for a war zone that the Australian people do not support? Do we really believe that an Australian government of either flavour will have the spine to stand up and say, 'No, you can't use those facilities'? This is a direct ceding of sovereignty to a foreign power and I cannot believe the bizarre bipartisan silence on this announcement.

Another question I have is around environmental contamination. Again this is an issue that has severely impacted areas where training, in particular, occurs but also where there is just stockpiling of chemicals. In the Australian Greens we tend to focus on things like radiological weapons, cluster munitions and so on because there is that global push to simply eliminate these things from the arsenals of the world. But in fact at military bases around the world, whether in southern Japan, South Korea, Puerto Rico, central Europe or wherever else, the most severe long-term impacts can come from the highly carcinogenic material, just from the fuels, the solvents, the oils and heavy metals that are released during military operations and which affect the land, water and ocean.

If you are talking about bombing training ranges and so on, you have the additional problem of unexploded munitions-chemicals, propellants, explosives and so on that either are blown all over the landscape when the munitions detonate or lie there undetonated, effectively sterilising that land use from all other forms of use. I did not hear a great deal about that last week when these announcements were being made. This is something that is of particular interest to me, having followed these issues now for about 10 years. In 2001 and 2002, in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, there were very strong moves to introduce military bases, in particular a naval facility, into my hometown, into Cockburn Sound, south of Perth for so-called sea swap trials, where the United States would sail a naval vessel into port, airlift in a new crew and airlift out the old crew and save the vessel from having to traverse all the way back to Guam or wherever it had come from. That would have been very efficient from the US government's point of view. The other thing they were very interested in was the training range at Lancelin, where US Navy aircraft would repeatedly blast with air-to-ground munitions and ships would use ship-to-shore munitions, to the enormous detriment of the local people there. I have no doubt at all that that facility is back on the cards again. We did not hear much about that last week.

 I have many other questions, but the principle one is this: in the suffocating spirit of bipartisan Obama worship that fell across Canberra like a fever last week, will this debate even get to occur? Mr Obama, I wish you well in confronting the daunting challenges that surround you at home and I wish you wisdom and foresight in planning America's responses to the security challenges of the 21st century. But as an Australian citizen I say with the greatest respect that you are not my president.


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