Why East Timor Matters

Sunday, January 30, 2000

President Clinton’s recent call on the United Nations to do more to stop the kind of mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing seen recently in East Timor was a vivid expression of the distressingly cynical pattern that has come to characterize American foreign policy during this presidency. Clinton’s speech, delivered at the opening of the current U.N. General Assembly last September, follows the tactic of "triangulation" invented by onetime Clinton adviser Dick Morris: come down on all sides of the issue while evading responsibility and claiming credit at the same time.

The horrors in East Timor in the summer of 1999 brought a response from the Clinton administration similar to that taken toward other cases of brutal ethnic conflict in the 1990s: Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. In each situation, the United States proved to be unprepared, avoided timely action, watched while massacres and refugee flight took place, and then, with the devastation having run its course, stepped in "to restore the situation," congratulating itself and, whenever criticism was heard, pointing its finger at the United Nations.

The United Nations organized and oversaw the critical 1994 election in Cambodia, with an international force on the ground before, during, and after the vote. Why wasn’t a similar force in place in East Timor?

East Timor is a place few Americans had ever heard of until recently, let alone cared about. But to foreign affairs specialists it has been for years a well-known problem and potential hot spot. It is hard to imagine a case where trouble was more obviously predictable than East Timor after Indonesian president B. J. Habibie finally agreed in January 1999 to a referendum on East Timor’s future status. Nor is there another case in which the international community has had, for more than two decades, such a powerful and well-established right—and responsibility—to be involved. Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, invaded East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, in 1975 and forcibly annexed it in violation of international law. Indonesia has never had a valid claim to the place. An alert and proactive American foreign policy establishment would have taken the lead early this year, not to get the United States directly involved but to induce both Indonesia and its international friends to head off trouble. A precedent exists: The United Nations in Cambodia from 1992 to 1994 organized and oversaw the crucial election there, with an international force on the ground before, during, and after the vote. Something similar on a smaller scale would have been relatively easy to organize for East Timor had Clinton and his team been on the ball.

All throughout the bloody violence that raged in East Timor following the August 30, 1999, referendum, with Indonesian army–backed thugs marauding through the capital city of Dili, the White House sat on its hands. Inconveniently for the White House, the press recalled "the Clinton Doctrine," promulgated by the president in the aftermath of the U.S. bombing of Belgrade on behalf of the Kosovar people: "If somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them because of their race, their ethnic background, or their religion, and it’s within our power to stop it, we will stop it." But when faced with the parallel, the Clinton Doctrine evaporated. "It’s in Asia," explained National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, giving cause to question the strategic vision of this administration.

Not until well after the killing and burning had run its course in East Timor did the Clinton administration, prodded by Australia, decide to agree to an international force for East Timor. Even this step, however, reveals the absence of the kind of solid, experienced U.S. leadership that once was taken for granted. The United States should have convinced Australia that it was not in its interest, or in the interest of regional stability, for the Aussies to lead this operation. David Rieff recently argued in the New York Times that "it is wrong to expect people far away from a crisis to be willing to make great sacrifices to stop it. But it is not unrealistic to expect neighbors to help neighbors." On the contrary, such interventions, if the United States does not want to go it alone, need to be truly international in their makeup. When one regional power, in this case Australia, intervenes in another regional power’s problem, we are headed back toward a dangerous world in which nations compete for spheres of influence. The very concept of international security is undermined when conflicts are left to neighbors to solve and when the United States hesitates to venture out of its own NATO-area sphere of influence.

There is far more at stake here than the future of East Timor. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, with vast economic potential, is a linchpin of Asian security. In geostrategic terms, the major states of maritime Asia—Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan—must be pro-American, democratically inclined, dedicated to a global market economy, and willing to cooperate with us on a range of security concerns. The United States cannot afford anything less than a full-court, focused, and forward-looking diplomacy in this region. That "it’s in Asia" is no excuse for the Clinton administration’s failure of leadership, which has resulted in Australia and Indonesia—once a key partnership in Asian security—now in a confrontation that has been described as Australia’s biggest foreign policy and defense crisis since the Second World War.

The vexing question of what to do about brutal ethnic conflict taking place has yet to be answered. Obviously, not every occurrence of such violence can or should bring outside intervention. But neither can the United States stand aside when upheavals approach a near-genocidal magnitude and when they threaten to escalate or undermine international stability. Predictably, China and Russia, with Taiwan/Tibet and Chechnya/Dagestan in mind, will threaten to veto any proposal for U.N.-authorized action. But an intensive, long-term American diplomatic effort, had it been conducted over the 1990s, by now could have created the basis for an international consensus on the most dangerous cases of ethnic warfare, whether inside or across state borders.

Most important in many cases is swift action, which would long since have been possible had former secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 proposal to create a United Nations standby force been implemented. The idea for such a force was widely hailed then in the media and by governments around the world. In the aftermath of President Clinton’s decision to veto Boutros-Ghali’s reelection in 1996, the idea seems to have become unmentionable in U.N. corridors.

In his speech to the General Assembly, President Clinton called the United Nations "indispensable," echoing his secretary of state’s repeated assertions that the United States is "indispensable." The task is to make the two indispensables work together in America’s national interest. For two terms, the president has failed to utilize the United Nations as the mechanism it can be for dealing with ethnic conflict quickly and effectively, without drawing the United States or its allies directly into every far-off conflict that comes along.