|Subject: Foreign Service Journal: The Price
Also: Review in New Zealand International
Foreign Service Journal
Vol. 83, No. 1
January 2006 (pages 76-77)
The Price of Realpolitik
A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor
Cornell University Press, 2005, $18.95, paperback 273 pages.
Reviewed by Edmund McWilliams
Rarely do contemporary histories address foreign policy making from the
perspective of human rights and justice. Even rarer is a book like Joseph
Nevins' A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor, which
compellingly makes the case that failure to give such concerns adequate
weight in policy formulation has produced ruinous results. The
quarter-century-long tragedy that befell the people of East Timor
following the Indonesian invasion and occupation of that small country in
1975, and the barbarous violence they endured at the hands of the
Indonesian military and its militias following their vote for freedom in
1999, have been well documented. Where Nevins riveting and often personal
narrative breaks new ground is in its meticulous, analytical review of the
miscalculations of the major powers that facilitated the Indonesian
military's rape of East Timor from 1975 to 1999 and its near-strangling of
that new nation at the moment of its birth.
Most revealing and most damning is Nevins' exposure of the deliberate
policy choices made by officials in Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and London
that failed even as realpolitik. Those decisions, which entailed ignoring
Indonesian military brutality and sacrificing Timorese fundamental rights
and well-being, were intended to promote economic and geo-political ties
with Jakarta. In fact, Washington and western policies exacerbated and
made inevitable an ultimate confrontation with Jakarta that deeply scarred
those key relationships.
U.S. provision of air-to-ground aircraft (OV-10 Broncos) and small arms
and ammunition replenished the Indonesian military in 1977-1978and
critically enabled it to consummate its post-invasion assault on the
Timorese resistance and civilian population. (Around the same time, it
also used those planes against villages in West Papua, which Indonesia had
seized in 1969.)
Some have sought to rationalize U.S. support for the brutal, rightist
Soeharto military regime by placing that policy in the context of the cold
war. However, continued U.S. backing for that regime--in particular,
continuance of support for occupation of East Timor--after the collapse of
the Soviet Union reveal U.S. policy as oblivious and bankrupt. Consider
former U.S. Ambassador Stapleton Roy's explanation, cited in Nevins' book,
for the timid U.S. response to the post-electoral bloodshed,
"Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn't."
Nevins documents with equal precision the refusal of the U.S. and other
international powers to insist on Indonesian accountability for the crimes
against humanity that victimized not only the people of East Timor but
also the international community and its UN mission in East Timor. What
remains unexplained in this otherwise excellent account is the failure of
the U.S. and other international powers to demand that the Indonesian
military behave responsibly in the period leading up to the August 30
vote. Insisting that the Indonesian Government provide security in East
Timor, as it pledged to do in its May 5, 1999 agreement with the United
Nations, was an obvious and low-cost policy option.
Our failure to demand the disarming and disbanding of those militias
not only set in motion the slaughter, but also assured disruption of
U.S.-Indonesian relations on which U.S. policymakers like Ambassador Roy
put such priority. Further, it reinforced the near- total impunity that
the Indonesian military continues to enjoy there (as shown by Secretary of
State Condoleeza Rice's recent announcement of the restoration of
Jakarta's eligibility for bilateral military aid), notwithstanding its
notorious history of human rights abuse, anti-democratic conniving and
corruption. Once again, U.S. policymakers, in their reluctance to confront
the Indonesian government, or at least its military, seriously undermine
their stated desire to encourage the emergence of a stable and democratic
This book should be read by all those concerned that Washington's eager
embrace and empowerment of rogue militaries in the so-called "war on
terror"--as wed did during the Cold War--will again strengthen
regimes characterized by their corruption and hostility to democracy and
Edmund McWilliams entered the Foreign Service in 1975, serving in
Vientiane, Bangkok, Moscow, Kabul, Islamabad, Managua, Bishek, Dushanbe,
Jakarta (where he was political counselor from 1996 to 1999) and
Washington, D.C. He opened the posts in Bishek and Dushanbe and was the
first chief of mission in each. In 1998, he received AFSA's Christian
Herter Award for creative dissent by a senior FSO. Since retiring as a
Senior Foreign Service officer in 2001, he has worked with various U.S.
and foreign human rights NGOs as a volunteer.
[copies are available from ETAN. Go to etan.org/resource/booksetc.htm]
A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor. (Book
New Zealand International Review; 1/1/2006;
A NOT-SO-DISTANT HORROR Mass Violence in East Timor
Author: Joseph Nevins Published by: Cornell University Press, Ithaca,
2005, 273pp, USS 18.95 (pb).
This book begins in the ruins of post-pillage Dili and ends with an
indictment of us all for silent complicity in tragedies around the world.
For Nevins, Dill is 'ground zero' and the East Timorese the victims of
terrorism, genocide and holocaust. These terms may be overused but still
resonate if properly framed. The author puts them to serious work in a
vigorous argument that no tragedy, no matter how horrific and widespread, is
unique. Even the Holocaust needs to be generalised in order to remind us why
we need, and teach us how, to avoid future tragedies. To link the East Timor
tragedy to others is the task the author sets himself.
Nevins eloquently and with abundant documentation sketches the course of
East Timor's melancholy history from shabby Portuguese imperialism through a
brief period of Timorese political freedom to unprovoked Indonesian
main-force invasion and determined counter-insurgency and colonialism. He
concisely illuminates the 25 years of mendacity and brutality of the
Indonesian colonial government. The complicity of Indonesian forces in the
fire and murder perpetrated by the militia is flagged as unprecedented in
the annals of 20th century colonial withdrawals.
The author's gaze then turns outwards, to the governments that abstained
on United Nations resolutions condemning Indonesia's invasion of East Timor
in 1975, and that co-operated with the Indonesian military and political
leaders for the next quarter-century. Nevins identifies the institutions of
power--military, political, corporate, media--that sustain 'the West' and
shows how they also sustained the government of Indonesia while it exercised
its brutality in East Timor.
He then brands those institutions as criminal inasmuch as they continue
to exercise violence against the poor and vulnerable by condoning if not
directly perpetuating poverty, hunger, disease, and the premature deaths of
millions ... crimes even greater than those committed in East Timor.
The complicity of the West did not cease when Australia, INTERFET and
UNTAET finally restored order and began rebuilding the country and
empowering the local elite. Silence was replaced by spin, wherein Western
leaders took credit for a successful humanitarian intervention and
construction of a new democracy. The sacrifices of the Timorese resistance
at home and its tireless champions abroad were ignored.
Meanwhile, the American media ignore US aerial bombing in the Second
World War and misbehaviour in Vietnam and Iraq while demanding that Muslim
terrorists everywhere be brought to justice--or detained indefinitely.
Australian leaders stand by their decades of pro-Indonesian policies; and
they give aid to East Timor with one hand but claim vast tracts of oil-rich
Timor Gap seabed with the other, claiming fidelity to international law
while denying East Timor a resource that could make it self-sufficient. The
United Nations allowed Indonesian courts to try war criminals and was
paralysed when all but two (both Timorese) were acquitted. And Timorese
leaders Ramos Horta and Gusmao now plead for reconciliation rather than
We are shaped as much by the painful events we try to forget as by what
we celebrate or mythologise, writes Nevins, whose indictment of us all is
driven by charges of silence, historical distortion and double standards.
This book identifies many villains and even more numerous accomplices,
not only in East Timor but in 'painful events' around the world. It will
raise the reader's righteous indignation as well as awareness. Implicit is
the hope that awareness and indignation will stimulate deeper, more truthful
accounts of 'painful events', leading to justice, restitution and moral
Joseph Nevins worked with the East Timor Action Network and the
International Federation for East Timor and now teaches at Vassar College.
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