- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2011

For most diplomats, nothing can be more injurious than a slip of the tongue. But during 2010’s “Snowmageddon,” Australian Ambassador Kim Beazley endured a far more painful slip.

“I fell on black ice twice, first taking out the patella tendon in my right knee and the second time taking it out in my left,” he recalls. It was his first week in Washington.

Days later, the temporarily paraplegic but ever-jovial Mr. Beazley was wheeled into the White House, where he presented his credentials to President Obama.

“It was good because people felt guility, so they felt that they had to see me.” he says, laughing. “So for a while, I could get in to see anyone - so much so that the deputy head of mission said, ‘We haven’t had access like this. Can you stay in the wheelchair a bit longer?’ “

Even with the cane he’s been using while in rehab, the bulky 6-foot-2 college rugby player remains an imposing figure - one who, at 62, has built an equally imposing resume.

During a 27-year parliamentary career, the silver-haired Perth native served as opposition leader, finance minister, deputy prime minister and defense minister - a job that earned him the nickname “Bomber Beazley” and lasting friendships with U.S. counterparts Caspar Weinberger and Dick Cheney.

Mr. Beazley never became premier, losing elections as head of the Australian Labor Party to right-wing “Coalition” leader John Howard in 1998 and 2001, albeit with a narrow popular-vote majority the first time.

“Like Al Gore, he’s best the prime minister we never had,” quipped Chris Bowen, a minister in the current Labor-led government who noted that Mr. Beazley - like Mr. Gore - had messaging difficulties in the modern media environment.

Kim would never use one word when four would do,” Mr. Bowen said. “He thinks in 30-year sweeps, not 30-second sound bites.”

Mr. Beazley retired from parliament in 2007, convinced he was done with public life.

“We’re not like Americans,” he says. “You tend to have your political career and then you go. Americans sort of dip in and dip out.”

But when offered the ambassador’s job in late 2009, he says he didn’t blink.

“He’s genuinely passionate about the United States and the bilateral relationship,” said Chris Barrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Beazley during his first stint as Labor leader.

Mr. Barrett recalled working on a speech Mr. Beazley delivered during a visit from President Bill Clinton. “He managed to inject all these Civil War references - he has this encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War - and you could see the effect they had on the president.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Beazley’s boss - Prime Minister Julia Gillard - offered her own ode to America, moving House Speaker John Boehner to tears with her speech before a joint session of Congress.

The arrangements for Miss Gillard’s weeklong trip kept Mr. Beazley extra busy, though he admits “the pressure of the job is relentless” - and, given the 14-hour difference with Canberra, sometimes “24/7.”

Asked if he enjoys the post, he says he finds it “fulfilling.”

“Were I to say that I enjoyed it, it would suggest I was a masochist,” he says, letting out one of his bellowing guffaws.

Alan Tidwell, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies, said that as one of Australia’s elder statesmen, Mr. Beazley is “universally viewed as an ideal choice” for his job.

“Certainly the people I talk to in Australia, on all sides of politics, when you say ‘Beazley as ambassador to Washington,’ all go, ‘Well, who else would you pick?’ ” he said.

Unlike many Western European nations, whose transatlantic postures have changed with their leaders, Australia has proven a remarkably steady ally, backing U.S. foreign policy through Labor and Coalition governments alike.

While that cooperation has been most visible in the greater Middle East - Australia has been far and away the largest non-NATO troop contributor in Iraq and Afghanistan - Mr. Beazley says he focuses on a region closer to home.

“The job of an Australian ambassador - in the contemporary era, at least - is to find ways of prioritizing American foreign policy objectives, to put the Asia-Pacific region to the top of the list,” he says.

Mr. Beazley rejects the conventional wisdom that the U.S. has handled China’s rise poorly.

“I think that successive administrations have understood that, while China may be a competitor in various areas, they don’t want to create a situation where China is an adversary.”

Despite recent U.S.-China tensions, he says he sees “evidence that China and the United States are beginning to work out how to crisis-manage,” citing recent cooperation between the U.S. and China on North Korea.

In that all-important relationship, Mr. Beazley argues that Australia can play a helpful role, though not the one many of his countrymen envision.

“Sometimes in Australia, there’s a sort of conceit that suggests what Australia has to do is be a good middleman between the United States and China,” he says. “That is not a sensible direction for Australian policy.”

Given the already deep engagement between the countries, he says “what Australia can be, rather than a middleman, is a good muse - somebody you can talk to, both China and the United States, and have them bounce ideas off you.”

He says administration officials have taken him up on the offer - a change from his days as a Cold War defense minister, when Australia’s neighborhood carried “little strategic significance.”

“We have moved from being a strategic backwater to an anchor geopolitically of the southern tier of the core feature of the international political system,” he says, smiling. “That is a very different relationship with the United States.”

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