For America, a Nation-Building Disaster Avoided

When the mobs start gathering in the streets of a major city in some distant nation, U.S. officials usually start jabbering. When fighting erupts and local politicians begin wringing their hands, U.S. Marines usually start reporting. Yet another grand nation-building exercise is about to begin.

Years later, when cold hatred has replaced bloody combat, American forces often are still on station, as in the Balkans, the guardians of yet another imperial outpost. In the few cases that the U.S. actually goes home, the inevitable collapse brings American soldiers back, as in Haiti – repeatedly.

One disaster avoided by both the Clinton and Bush administrations is East Timor (or, as it now styles itself, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste). Once a model of foreign nation-building, this fledgling nation has again become an international ward. But, miraculously, no American troops are involved.

Timor’s troubles go back to empire, but not the one run out of Washington. Present-day East Timor was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century. The Dutch took the western half of the island, which today is part of Indonesia. Over the years, Portugal was noted for neither humanity nor efficiency in its colonial management, but never mind: in those days Europeans routinely “civilized” inferiors in other lands at gunpoint.

The good times came to an end in 1974 when Lisbon, after its own democratic revolution, began the process of decolonization. In the midst of an ever messier political struggle among local factions, East Timor declared independence in November 1975, only to be invaded nine days later by Indonesia.

Thus began East Timor’s second stint as a colony. After all, Indonesia is not a real country. Made up of thousands of islands holding more than 200 million people of varying religious and ethnic stocks, who speak more than 300 languages, Indonesia is a country only because it emerged from the predecessor Dutch colony, which was just an amalgam of convenient conquests.

Winning independence did not make Indonesia into a real nation. People suffered under the authoritarian rule of Sukarno and then Suharto, typical of the sort of brutal kleptocrats who arose to rule much of the developing world. Indonesia was commonly referred to as the Java Empire. That is, the residents of the island of Java – or really Jakarta, the nation’s capital located in Java – relied on the military and other security forces to boss everyone else around.

Many unhappy citizens of Indonesia resisted. Not surprisingly, the newly incorporated citizens of East Timor really resisted. Guerrillas, known as the Falintil, arose, igniting bitter conflict and ever worse depredations by the occupying forces. Estimates of the dead from the invasion and occupation run between 100,000 and 250,000 out of an initial population of 600,000.

There was little that the U.S. could have done, short of war, to have forced the Java Empire to disgorge its newest colony. But the Ford administration affirmatively recognized Jakarta’s conquest. Archival documents suggest “that Suharto began the invasion knowing that he had the full approval of the White House.” Suharto was anti-communist, after all. Apparently the Ford White House never considered criticizing the aggression while still cooperating on key issues.

Not that the U.S. needed Indonesia: Suharto had crushed domestic communists when he seized power, and neither China nor the Soviet Union was able to threaten the island nation. As usual during the Cold War, the U.S. put itself against the democratic and nationalistic aspirations of subject peoples. Yet it did little to enhance its security in the process.

Washington also continued to maintain defense contacts and train Indonesian military personnel. The U.S. reduced those ties only after an ugly massacre of civilians in Dili in November 1991, and cut them still further eight years later only after pro-Indonesian militias were slaughtering East Timorese. Washington has since restored military aid.

Like many nasty thugs, Suharto eventually found that his military was unwilling to protect him from his many enemies. He fell in 1998; his weak successor held a referendum on East Timor’s status on Aug. 30, 1999. Violence and chaos ensued, as nearly 80 percent of East Timorese voted to leave the Java Empire and pro-Indonesian militias brutally retaliated. President B.J. Habibie was unwilling or, more likely, unable to control his nation’s military, which helped orchestrate the violence.

After the usual international huffing and puffing, Jakarta agreed to dump the problem into the hands of the United Nations. The Java Empire could ill afford to ignore an overwhelming secessionist vote that it had called. Attempting to stuff the independence genie back into the bottle would have been even more costly than before. On Sept. 20, 1999, Operation Warden began, with Australia in the lead.

This surprised many who expected America to head the latest nation-building parade. After Washington’s grand “victory,” in the company of the world’s greatest military alliance, over the isolated and impoverished rump state of Yugoslavia, President Bill Clinton visited Kosovo and essentially promised to destroy anyone on earth who was mean to anyone else.

When things got ugly in East Timor, however, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said: “Just because we bombed in Kosovo doesn’t mean we should bomb Dili” in East Timor. He explained that the situation was like his college-age daughter’s dorm room – there was no duty for the rest of us to clean it up. Alas for East Timor, there were neither white Europeans living there nor known prodigious pools of oil underneath the land.

The Australians were sore, since they expected Washington to do the heavy lifting. Since it was impossible to argue seriously that American security was at risk in East Timor, Australian policymakers emphasized humanitarian concerns.

“I don’t think a country with the depth of moral commitment and strength of liberal democratic traditions like the United States would want to turn its back on a people who are being slaughtered,” argued Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer. Unlike during, oh, the quarter century in which Indonesia was busy killing a quarter of a million East Timorese while Washington – and Canberra – silently looked on. In 1999 Australia cared about East Timor because it saw chaos next door, not because it saw people dying.

Then came the guilt trip. Contended Downer: “We’ve given very strong support to the U.S. over and over again in many different conflicts.” Some United Nations votes, perhaps, but no Aussie planes bombed Belgrade. Turkey provided more troops than Australia in the Korean War. Canberra’s most important allied military commitment, Vietnam, reflected perceived security concerns, not disinterested generosity.

The final plea came from former Defense Minister Kim Beazley: “[T]he cost to the United States [of intervening] would be very small indeed from an American point of view.” Nice of him to measure U.S. costs. It’s hard to find a foreign country that does not think that the price of doing its bidding – protecting its citizens or punishing its enemies – would not be small for America. It’s always fun to spend someone else’s money and lives.

Portuguese officials whined less in public, but Portuguese citizens protested in front of the U.S. embassy. It was the very definition of chutzpah: their nation had committed aggression centuries before to seize the colony. Their nation had ruled poorly, winning a bad reputation even among colonial overlords. And their nation had bungled the independence process, mishandling both politics within the colony and dealings with Indonesia. So it was Washington’s obligation to fix everything. Of course. What could be more natural?

Foreign demands for the U.S. to become an ever more benighted overseer of ever more territory was to be expected. But even some Americans backed a Washington-led mission. The problem was not that the job wasn’t being done. In fact, when faced with a U.S. refusal to get involved (other than to send in 200 communications and logistics folks), Canberra led a mission to which several nations contributed, including Thailand, another important regional player. So much for America being the essential nation. When chaos threatened next door, the Aussies immediately took things into their own hands.

Nevertheless, a week after the mission began, Tom Donnelly of the Project for the New American Century (most noted as the “bomb Iraq early and often” folks) complained: “[T]he United States shrugs its shoulders, laments the humanitarian catastrophe, and willfully ignores the larger, strategic concerns.” But what were the latter?

At the time, Alan Bock of the Orange County Register noted with some asperity: “I kept looking for some statement of just what those strategic concerns – assuming that as with most commentators the term strategic concerns refers to military or geopolitical worries that might pose a threat to larger U.S. strategic goals in East Asia – are.” But without success. The best Donnelly could come up with was the importance of creating a democratic Indonesia and demonstrating “our reliability and staying power.”

Given the tensions generated between Indonesia and Australia by the latter’s participation in the UN mission, getting involved was no way to make friends in Jakarta. Indonesia’s democracy has survived despite, not because of, foreign troops patrolling East Timor. Substituting American soldiers for the forces of Australia or another nation would have done nothing to smooth Indonesia’s political development.

Even sillier is the argument that only by jumping into every distant, meaningless, and irrelevant conflict can Washington convince its allies to allow it to defend them. Countries like Japan and South Korea might be security leeches, sucking the U.S. dry in order to protect themselves at little cost, but that doesn’t mean they are stupid. They realize that if America exhausts itself on debilitating “nation-building” exercises, it is less, not more, likely to help them. And why should any country feel secure if its leading ally has so little geopolitical judgment that it won’t leave any conflict anywhere alone?

Despite these and other lamentations at home and abroad, the East Timor mission went forward without America. The UN puttered around until 2002, when East Timor received its sovereignty. Foreign troops stuck around another three years to keep an eye on things. When they left last year, Timor-Leste was pronounced a great success, another feather in the caps of the world’s nation-builders. President Xanana Gusmao declared: “The country has made remarkable progress in laying the foundations for a functioning civil society.”

Oops. Never mind.

In March, many soldiers went on strike, protesting alleged discrimination and seeking better working conditions. The government fired nearly half of the army. Those discharged protested, loyal units shot at demonstrators, and rival soldiers and police fought. As order dissolved, armed gangs looted and killed. More than 100,000 people, a tenth of the population, fled their homes in the capital, Dili. It was 1999 all over again. So foreign troops are back, led by Australia (with smaller contingents from Malaysia, New Zealand, and Portugal).

What went wrong? An unnamed Western diplomat blamed inadequate UN imperialism, telling The Washington Post: “The international community never stood up to the Timorese in the last three years,” whatever that meant.

More helpful is Joshua Kurlantzick at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who points to a number of factors, including tension between exiles and those who stayed, conflict over the choice of national language, abuse of power, and burgeoning corruption. Geographical divisions run deep, and East Timorese are poorer today than before independence.

More fundamentally, East Timor has never been a nation and has no democratic tradition. It was always an imperial province, first of Portugal, then of Indonesia. It was birthed in violence and constructed by foreigners.

This isn’t to say that East Timor can’t ever become a democratic, capitalist success. But it’s going to require a dramatic change in the domestic political order. “The international community,” whatever it is, can’t make it happen.

All of this is a human tragedy, of course. Innocent people are killed. Their homes are destroyed. Their lives are disrupted. Their livelihoods are imperiled. Their country is put at risk.

But that makes it no different from many nations elsewhere in the world: Sudan, Burma, and Congo. Afghanistan and Iraq.

We see yet again how difficult it is to engage in nation-building. A bitter East Timorese army officer told a Washington Post reporter: “People say the only successful case for the UN is here in East Timor. You see how successful? People killing each other very successfully.”

The only good news to come out of East Timor’s implosion is the fact that the U.S. isn’t involved. For once Washington didn’t cause the problem. And for once Washington isn’t expected to solve the problem.

Let it remain that way. Horrible though it is, the crisis in East Timor may serve one positive end: it shows that not every global problem requires Washington’s attention. The U.S. has nothing at stake that warrants sacrificing the lives and resources of its own citizens. Let this be an example for the future.