Subject: Unintended Consequences - review of Economists with Guns

Foreign Service Journal

April 2009

Unintended Consequences

Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968

Bradley R. Simpson, Stanford University Press, 2008, $48.00, hardcover, 376 pages.

Reviewed by Edmund McWilliams

Callout: Simpson observes that Indonesians "still wrestle with the bitter legacy of the choices forged in Jakarta and Washington during these fateful years."


Dr. Bradley R. Simpson's Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968 should be important reading for those with foreign policy responsibilities in the new Obama administration. This exhaustively researched and richly documented history of American engagement with Indonesia during a critical period is a cautionary tale about means and ends -- and unintended consequences.

Simpson, an assistant professor of history and international studies at Princeton University, draws on a hoard of recently declassified U.S. government documents to reconstruct a detailed history that closely examines Washington's policy from the perspective of political, security and economic objectives during the turbulent years before and after the violent overthrow of President Sukarno by General Suharto.

He makes especially effective use of Embassy Jakarta's reporting and analysis during the period to illuminate policymakers' intentions and prejudices, placing them in the context of the diplomatic and budgetary challenges posed by the Vietnam War. As Simpson explains, the growing costs of that conflict shaped attitudes and options for both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. At the same time, American commitment to the economic "modernization" of Indonesia ultimately found expression in a decision to support a corrupt and brutal military.

The author sets the stage for his account with a well-researched review of Washington's efforts to dismember Indonesia in the late 1950s, an extraordinarily ill-conceived and poorly executed misadventure which few Americans remember -- but few Indonesians have forgotten. He then reconstructs the policy considerations that led the Kennedy administration to support Sukarno's demand that the Dutch turn over the western part of the island of New Guinea to Indonesian control.

This Cold War-driven calculation not only rebuffed a NATO ally but betrayed the democratic aspirations of the local Papuan people, whose aspiration for self-rule was ignored and ultimately betrayed by means of a United Nations-approved, Indonesian-organized referendum that was immediately recognized as blatantly fraudulent. Washington would repeat this pattern by failing to support a British initiative to defeat Sukarno's "Konfrontasi," a military policy aimed at blocking establishment of Malaysia.

Simpson gives us a carefully documented but horrifyingly vivid account of the massive 1965-1966 massacre of Indonesians alleged to be members or supporters of the Communist Party. The U.S. role in this slaughter of hundreds of thousands, and the detention of as many or more people for years under life-threatening conditions, underscores its willingness throughout the Cold War to abandon principle and ignore international law in the service of geostrategic objectives. The Central Intelligence Agency's provision of small arms to the local military with the purpose of arming Muslim and nationalist youth engaged in killing of alleged communists constitutes but one example of direct complicity in what ranks as one of the greatest slaughters of the 20th century.

Simpson makes a compelling case that Washington's empowerment of the Indonesian military to assume control of economic and political institutions led directly to its "dual function," a concept entailing a direct role in governance that the military remains reluctant to discard a decade after the 1998 collapse of Suharto's "new order" revealed the "myth of developmental success and poverty reduction." As the author notes, Indonesians "still wrestle with the bitter legacy of the choices forged in Jakarta and Washington during these fateful years."

A concluding chapter tracing that legacy is particularly valuable for policy practitioners today as they review the Bush administration's embrace of foreign militaries as partners in "the war on terror" -- even when their subordination to civilian control, accountability before the law and respect for human rights are all dubious at best.


Edmund McWilliams, a Foreign Service officer from 1975 to 2001, was political counselor in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999, receiving AFSA's Christian Herter Award for constructive dissent by a senior FSO in 1998. Since retiring as a senior FSO, he has worked with various U.S. and foreign human rights NGOs as a volunteer.

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