Subject: Commentary: Howard's real failure on Timor

Sydney Morning Herald 11/10/99


Howard's real failure on Timor

Australia left it too late to enlist American support for the East Timorese, writes Robert Manne.

Australia is involved in the most important foreign policy debate since the end of the Vietnam War. Its central question is clear: ought the Howard Government to be praised for its role in securing the independence of East Timor? Or ought it rather to be condemned for its failure to avert the nightmare that descended on East Timor after the independence ballot of August 30?

According to one line of reasoning, expressed in its most extreme form by Paul Keating, the most fundamental mistake of the Howard Government was the decision it took late last year to support East Timorese autonomy. According to Keating, Howard should somehow have known in advance that, with a weak transitional president in power, his letter would start an avalanche which would reduce East Timor to ruins and the Australian-Indonesian relationship to its lowest point in 30 years.

The Keating line seems to me self-evidently absurd. In politics, what could not possibly have been predicted cannot retrospectively be condemned.

A far more telling criticism of the Howard Government's East Timor diplomacy has been mounted by the Labor Party's Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Laurie Brereton. Unlike Keating, Brereton is far from indifferent to the question of East Timorese independence. Unlike Keating, he does not criticise the Howard Government for its East Timorese change of line. His criticism of the Government's East Timor diplomacy operates within a much narrower band.

Shortly after the Habibie announcement of the impending plebiscite on East Timor, as Brereton to his credit repeatedly pointed out at the time, the Indonesian military began arming militia forces with the intention of launching attacks on the East Timorese. Australian intelligence was well aware of these preparations. As we learnt in The Bulletin last week, in June the Howard Government had become so alarmed about developments in Dili that it sent the deputy chief of the Australian Armed Forces, Air Marshall Doug Riding, to Jakarta to speak to senior Indonesian military officers about the threat of army-backed violence in East Timor.

In the light of the clear evidence of plans for army-backed militia violence, what ought the Australian Government to have done? Brereton's answer is clear. He believes that Australia should have campaigned through diplomacy to have a United Nations peacekeeping force sent to East Timor before the plebiscite.

The material published in The Bulletin has made it clear that as early as February Australia opposed the idea of a UN peacekeeping force for East Timor. In this the Government's judgment was poor. Yet what difference would it have made if Australia had supported the idea of an East Timor peacekeeping force? Clearly Indonesia and its allies would oppose it. No Australian campaign for such a force, mounted merely on the basis of intelligence estimates of violence yet to come, could possibly have succeeded.

When Brereton says a peacekeeping force was needed, he is right. When, however, he argues that Australia could have convinced the UN to send such a force to East Timor, he is wrong. Moreover, in the interest of intellectual honesty, Brereton must give a straight answer to the following question. If Australia had failed before September to win support for a UN peacekeeping force in East Timor, ought we to have campaigned, on security grounds, for the postponement of the East Timor plebiscite?

There are, then, key elements in the arguments of both Keating and Brereton that are weak. Does this mean that the diplomatic performance of the Howard Government before the independence ballot is vindicated? I do not think it does.

We now know from information in The Bulletin not only that the Australian Government was convinced of the seriousness of the intelligence estimates concerning the threat of major violence in East Timor. We also know that after some of this intelligence was passed on to Washington, when the Americans offered to support Australian warnings at Jakarta, their offer was turned down. The Australian Government presumably believed that, with our more subtle approach, we could handle the prickly Indonesians more effectively than could the clumsy Americans. The unwillingness to enlist American support in Jakarta represents an extraordinary policy failure.

A month after the Riding discussions in Jakarta, Howard visited Washington. His visit coincided with a congressional vote in favour of tariff protection for American lamb. Howard was allocated a miserly 20 minutes with the American president. The meeting was dominated by lamb. The question of East Timor was not, in the formal proceedings, even raised. The opportunity to focus the mind of the American president on the impending tragedy in East Timor, a tragedy Australian intelligence had already foreseen, had been squandered. This represents another extraordinary policy failure.

What, practically speaking, might Australia have done? In my opinion, once the intelligence assessments were clear, the most pressing task of Australian diplomacy ought to have been to concentrate Washington's attention, at the highest level, on the black clouds forming over Dili.

After East Timor descended into violence, threats from Washington were able to convince Jakarta to swallow its pride and accept the UN armed force on East Timorese soil. If Australia had, well before the ballot, convinced the US of the seriousness of the situation in East Timor, Washington might well have warned Jakarta that if militias were unleashed it risked nothing less than international ostracism and the cancellation of its IMF loan. If such a warning had been delivered, it is not impossible that events in East Timor might have followed a different course.

Why, then, did Australia fail to call on the Americans to warn Indonesia of the cost of violence in East Timor? Until the very end Australian diplomacy remained too concerned about wounding Indonesian sensibilities. Until the end it hoped against hope that somehow the special relationship with Indonesia could be preserved. The old appeasing habit of mind with regard to Indonesia died hard. If there is an explanation for the failure of our East Timorese diplomacy it is to be found here.

Robert Manne is associate professor of politics at La Trobe University.

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