What an embarrassment. The US government is upset about Wikileaks and also pissed off that one of its best assets, Kevin Rudd, is being smeared in some leaked cables. Damage control time. But why did ABC TV’s 7.30 Report allow a senior US official 10 minutes last night to slobber over the client state known as Australia?
KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: Kurt Campbell is the US State Department’s most senior official, with responsibility for the Asia-Pacific region, and he asked to come on the program to counter the damage from today’s exposure in Fairfax newspapers of the US embassy cables critical of Prime Minister – or then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s foreign policy record. I recorded this interview with the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in our Washington studio.
Kurt Campbell, Australians woke up to a headline this morning that said “US condemns Rudd”. What do you say to that?
KURT CAMPBELL, US ASST SECRETARY OF STATE, ASIA-PACIFIC: Ah, I have to say we’ve been living over the course of the last two or three weeks with just enormous challenges. Every day we wake up, issues associated with WikiLeaks. It’s been extremely difficult for us. And to be perfectly honest, this is another one that causes us great heartache. No relationship’s more important to us than Australia. And to be perfectly blunt, I’ve worked with a lot of people over many, many years and I’ve really focused on Asia for most of my career. Few people have made such an impression, not only on sort of the foreign policy national security imperatives of a country like Kevin Rudd has done in Australia, but he has an enormous respectful following in the United States and throughout Asia. So I think these are just deeply, profoundly unfair and he’s just taken some very unfair shots and I think it’s important for both friends and admirers to stand up and speak out, and that’s what I’m doing here tonight.
KERRY O’BRIEN: But does that mean that your own embassy in Canberra is out of step with the sentiment at the State Department and the White House level?
KURT CAMPBELL: Well, look, you know, some of these cables come from a previous administration. I don’t know all the context. And frankly, the release of cables are in the tens, hundreds of thousands, so, I can’t speak to specific cables. We don’t know the validity of all of these in particular. All I can tell you is that in meetings talking about Asian architectural issues, about China, about how to think about security challenges of the 21st Century and climate change, in meetings with President Obama, with Secretary Clinton, with Secretary Gates, no leader I’ve encountered has the respect and level of when he speaks people listen, as Kevin Rudd has had in the American administration. And I say that with no bias. I’ve seen very clearly how much he punches above his weight and frankly how much Australia punches above its weight in our diplomatic undertakings.
KERRY O’BRIEN: But everything you’re saying right now is going to be seen by a lot of people as an exercise in damage control, that these are the things you have to say to undo the damage?
KURT CAMPBELL: Look, all I can tell you is that this has hit us broadside in almost every country. I’ve not talked with Foreign Minister Rudd about this. It’s late at night. I can tell you that we have many of these challenges on really an hourly basis. I called you, I wanted to do this. I don’t see this as damage control, I see this as stating very clearly how I see it and how our government sees it. We were – when we look at what Kevin, what Foreign Minister Rudd has accomplished in terms of – we would not have joined the East Asia Summit if it weren’t for his prodding. He played a role that was enormous in trying to salvage a success last year in Cancun. He has played a critical role in how to think – how we should think about China’s role for instance on the Korean Peninsula. On almost every issue of consequence – Burma, South-East Asia, the role of India in Asia, we consult with Rudd on a very regular basis. There’s no foreign official that I spend more time with in quiet consultations. And so this is just a fact. And all I can tell you is if you have any doubts about this, take a look at the pictures from the AUSMIN that took place in Australia just a couple of months ago, or look at the US-Australia Leadership Dialogue. It’s not just respect, it’s true affection.
KERRY O’BRIEN: He’s been painted in these US cables as impulsive, not consultative with the US. And if we go back to last year, I remember talking to you about what you had to say at your confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where your comments were interpreted as pouring cold water on Kevin Rudd’s call for a new strategic Asia Pacific community. Was that a case in point?
KURT CAMPBELL: No, no, I disagree with that, and in fact if you look at what I said, I tried to be very clear in my confirmation hearing where the United States stood and where I stood. Confirmation hearings are – you know, your whole life is hanging in the balance, and you’re stressed and you’ve been up for days preparing, and so sometimes things come out slightly different. And what I tried to convey to both Foreign Minister Rudd and to the mission here was that, you know, I think my tone wasn’t exactly right. The truth is that we came out with a slightly different position than the one Foreign Minister – then Prime Minister – Rudd advanced. However, the overall conversation in the United States – we weren’t even thinking about joining the East Asia Summit. We weren’t even thinking about engaging deeply in South-East Asia. His role was decisive. Everything I’ve seen in my interactions with him, he’s deeply consultative. He has his own views and he will advance them strongly, and frankly that’s what’s impressive.
KERRY O’BRIEN: You told me in that interview that Kevin Rudd was one of President Obama’s best mates. Can you say with confidence that that’s still the case?
KURT CAMPBELL: Yes, but I think as importantly today – remember, Kevin Rudd is now serving as Foreign Minister. I would say, today, when we had discussions with the secretary and her staff, she was very clear about how uncomfortable she was with these revelations, understood that it put Foreign Minister Rudd in a very difficult position. But what’s impressive over the course of the last several months is they have developed a very close relationship. They consult regularly. So, the depth of his engagement with our administration is not just at the presidential level. It’s with our Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, key Asia staffers at the White House and also the Secretary of Defence.
KERRY O’BRIEN: What is the State Department’s current view as to what laws WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has actually broken by releasing the leaked documents and diplomatic cables? Because there’s been confusion about what actual laws the US believes he’s breached.
KURT CAMPBELL: You know, to be perfectly honest, I am not a lawyer. We have teams of lawyers that are working on this and there is lots of speculation in the public. I don’t think I can advance the case here in that respect. And so I best not talk directly about those issues. All I can tell you is that, as you well understand, they have been deeply challenging, embarrassing and they’ve created great damage. But I will also say we have enormous important work to do in the US-Australian relationship and I am proud of what we’ve accomplished and what we need to accomplish in the future and I stand by the relationship and I stand by our relationships inside the Australian Government.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Kurt Campbell, thanks very much for talking with us.
KURT CAMPBELL: Thanks very much.