The lessons of East Timor

Pub date March 28, 2006
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

Chega, the 2,500-page, recently completed final report of East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation, will probably attract little notice in the United States, and it’s not clear whether it’s the Timorese or the Americans who will be the worse off for that.

If Americans were to take the document seriously, the benefit for East Timor would be obvious: The tiny, half-island nation off the north coast of Australia might hope to receive justice for what it has suffered, rather than just the charity of wealthier nations on which it now depends.

Less obvious is what Americans stand to gain from the report: an understanding of just how far off the mark mainstream political discussion really is when it comes to the legitimate role of the world’s only remaining superpower.

A single sentence from Chega (which means enough in Portuguese) says it all: "In response to the massive violations that occurred in Timor-Leste [East Timor’s official name] in September 1999, President Clinton threw the considerable influence of the United States behind efforts to press the Indonesian Government to accept the deployment of an international force in the territory, demonstrating the considerable leverage that it could have exerted earlier had the will been there."

The "massive violations" referred to were the killings of more than 1,000 Timorese and the burning down of virtually every structure in the emerging country following its vote for independence from Indonesia. The United States’ "considerable influence" stemmed from the fact that it supplied the bulk of Indonesia’s weapons, as it had done throughout the entire occupation of the former Portuguese colony. The prompt effectiveness of a US government that was actually motivated to end the carnage after the 1999 plebiscite demonstrated what some had argued all along: As a junior military partner, Indonesia could never have invaded East Timor in 1975 without tacit US approval.

Five presidents occupied the White House during the Indonesian occupation: Republicans Ford, Reagan, and Bush; and Democrats Carter and Clinton. For 24 years, none of them opted to utilize America’s "considerable leverage," despite repeated United Nations condemnations of the invasion and occupation.

The history is very relevant: In this case we find a dramatic reminder of the continuity of American foreign policy — from the cold war to the war on terrorism — in the person of Paul Wolfowitz. The neoconservative Wolfowitz, now president of the World Bank, served as undersecretary of defense at the start of the Iraq War, and a lot of people who might have known better took him at face value when he argued that the war was all about democratizing the Middle East.

Wolfowitz, however, displayed no such overriding concern for democracy in East Timor when he served as ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1988, nor as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 1982 to 1986. In 1997 he told a congressional committee that talk of East Timor’s independence was "destructive," a view he maintained until 1999.

Chega demonstrates the truth of the exact opposite point of view. In 1999 the US government acted effectively to end the suffering of East Timor because it finally lived up to a principle that ought to be the cornerstone of our foreign policy: It required that one of our allies live up to the ideals we demand of our enemies.

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher was a United Nations election officer in Lospalos, East Timor, during the 1999 plebiscite.