etmnlong.gif (2291 bytes) spacer September 30, 2000

Washington Post


By Dana Priest

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- To land his gleaming white jet on the steamy tarmac here last April, Adm. Dennis Cutler Blair, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, had navigated a stormy obstacle course of objections by U.S. officials.

Blair wanted to mend military relations with the world's fourth-largest country. But U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert S. Gelbard had opposed the trip, as had some in the State Department and Congress. They believed Blair's visit would undermine President Clinton's decision to cut off military ties to Indonesia in outrage over its army's involvement in a brutal militia rampage in East Timor. The goal was to pressure Indonesia's army into adopting reforms demanded by the country's first democratically elected president in 31 years.

Blair convinced the National Security Council to let him go over Gelbard's objections. It was a diplomatic triumph that underscored the growing foreign policy clout of the regional commanders-in-chief (CINCs), the military leaders who oversee global Defense Department operations.

The CINCs command so much respect in their theaters and in Washington that they often shape foreign relations strategy. But their philosophies on building alliances abroad, developed over long military careers, sometimes clash with civilian views. The most pronounced differences involve how to treat foreign militaries that commit human rights abuses.

The administration and Congress routinely have pressured for change by conditioning or cutting off arms sales and training, a tactic applied to Guatemala, Chile, Colombia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Turkey. But the CINCs and the Pentagon nearly always advocate using continued engagement to induce change.

So it is in Indonesia.

Blair, 53, opposed abandoning a long relationship with Indonesia's armed forces just as the country struggles with democracy. He wanted the United States to use its military ties to maintain leverage and worried that the Indonesian armed forces could become so alienated that they would sever relations.

His plan to become the first high-ranking U.S. officer to visit Indonesia since the sanctions were imposed put him in conflict with Gelbard. The envoy considered the visit premature and took the unusual step of cabling his opposition to the State Department. The tension between the two was palpable as Blair's jet touched down April 2. As a hot wind blew across the tarmac, Gelbard greeted Blair with a stilted handshake. They walked to the airport's VIP lounge, then sat in near silence as the admiral's entourage was processed.

The events over the next few days tested Blair's diplomacy. His first challenge was to win the support of Gelbard, a tough diplomatic veteran who has worked closely with the U.S. military in the Balkans and Latin America.

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Forging Alliances

The view from Blair's conference room at Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii: an American flag waving in a light breeze, the sky deep blue behind the palms.

From here, Blair watches over a command that covers 43 countries, 60 percent of the world's population and four of its largest armies: China, India, North and South Korea.

While Washington tends to focus on possible confrontations, Blair says his theater is safer now than ever.

"When I look at the Asia Pacific region, I don't see any ideological or geographical or ethnic big causes of a future conflict," said Blair, widely seen as a contender for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We're just not lined up for . . . a big war . . . the hot spots are isolated."

Blair is promoting military alliances or "security communities," as he calls them, within his region. He wants countries to join in multinational military exercises and to forge disarmament policies and security pacts among themselves.

This notion was initially opposed by the departments of Defense and State, but Blair was undeterred. When his staff briefed him last year on Washington's negative reaction, he crisply replied, "Got it." Then he steamed ahead.

The concept is now filtering into U.S. policy. Blair acknowledges that regional alliances could dilute the power in Asia of both the United States and China, but in a "positive way... both the United States and Chinese power would be constrained by this arrangement and I think that would be good for this region... It's better than trying to pretend we're in 19th-century Britain." Indonesia must be part of any regional approach, said Blair, a wiry and soft-spoken man. Indonesia, always a U.S. ally in regional forums, was headed toward a collapse that could destabilize the entire region.

Under the dictatorial regime of then-President Suharto, Congress had funded a generous program to train Indonesia's military, despite the fact that Suharto's security forces routinely jailed, tortured and killed thousands of opposition activists. In East Timor, a former Portuguese colony Indonesia invaded in 1975, the army and its militia supporters had killed 200,000 East Timorese, a third of the population.

Outrage over the violence prompted Congress in 1992 to cut funding for the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs, but the Pentagon worked around Congress's restrictions. Blair and others in the military viewed Indonesia's human rights abuses more as a reflection of the military's financial straits and lack of discipline than a concerted effort to intimidate its citizenry.

Despite the congressional ban, U.S. Special Operation Forces trained Indonesia's elite and savage special forces through the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program, which taught urban warfare, sniper tactics and crowd control.

When Suharto was forced to resign in May 1998 and Gen. Wiranto took over the armed forces, the Pentagon saw Wiranto as a reformer and wanted to help him, even as evidence accumulated that his army was supporting violent anti-independence militias in East Timor.

From a windowless concrete building near Blair's Pacific Command headquarters, seven intelligence analysts at the "Joint Intelligence Center," the world's largest military intelligence center, had tracked the movements of Indonesian and militia forces since May 1998. They watched as East Timor refugees were herded into camps in an effort to intimidate and control pro-independence peasants. Analysts and United Nations monitors saw the violence bubbling into a wholesale rampage.

But at no point, Blair acknowledges, did he or his subordinates reach out to the Indonesian contacts trained through IMET or JCET to try to stop the brewing crisis. In fact, later, U.S. officials were chagrined to learn that five of the 15 Indonesian military officers named by the country's human rights commission as allegedly involved in "crimes against humanity" in East Timor were former IMET students.

"It is fairly rare that the personal relations made through an IMET course can come into play in resolving a future crisis," Blair said in an interview en route to East Timor.

On April 8, the National Security Council dispatched Blair to meet with Wiranto and warn him to take action to stop the violence. Though the United States had no proof that Wiranto had ordered the army's involvement, Blair hoped that he could convince Wiranto to step in more aggressively.

Blair took a cordial approach. He told Wiranto that he "looks forward to the time Indonesia will resume its proper role as a leader in the region," according to U.S. officials who reviewed a cable written about the trip. He invited Wiranto to a seminar in Hawaii and promised to train troops in crowd control. Blair also said he would work to reinstate the IMET program and was hopeful Congress would back it. Wiranto maintained that the military was being "unfairly blamed" for supporting anti-independence militias. Then, over the next week, Blair learned of a yet another gruesome militia massacre that left 57 dead at an East Timor church in Liquica. Blair complained to Wiranto, but the general said his army was not involved.

In fact, 13 militia groups had been organized and armed by Indonesian army Gen. Zacky Anwar, according to U.N. officials and a senior Indonesia intelligence officer.

After the island voted overwhelmingly on Aug. 30 to be independent from Indonesia, Blair said he thought, "touchdown!" and the problems would be over. His entourage headed for Indonesia to congratulate Wiranto on a smooth referendum.

But the militias reacted to the vote by unleashing a scorched earth campaign, killing thousands of peasants. The National Security Council asked Blair to take a different message to Wiranto, that the United States was severing all military ties.

Blair and his aide de camp, Maj. Joe Diana, rode alone in a Volvo limousine to Wiranto's headquarters. Upon arriving, they found a table set with 16 teacups to welcome the U.S. entourage.

"So," one of Wiranto's aides asked, "where is everyone else?"

Blair asked to be alone with Wiranto, then informed him that American patience had run out. He told Wiranto he must allow U.N. peacekeeping troops onto the island and that the United States was severing military relations, according to people familiar with Blair's reports of the conversation.

Divided Opinion

Blair and other U.S. military officials took a forgiving view of the violence surrounding the referendum in East Timor. Given the country's history, they argued, it could have been worse. "What they did was absolutely remarkable," said one top Pentagon general. But human rights activists and Indonesia watchers on Capitol Hill argued that the United Nations and the United States had ignored the brewing violence, then reacted too slowly to the rampage.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) won passage of an amendment that demanded concrete action by the Indonesians before military ties would be resumed. The legislation called on the Indonesians to prosecute army and militia wrongdoers, allow East Timor refugees to return home, prevent militia incursions from West Timor and cooperate with U.N. peacekeepers.

"For as long as I have been in the Senate, the Pentagon has said that U.S. engagement would professionalize the Indonesian army," Leahy said. "That has been disproved time and time again, and the final straw was the debacle in East Timor."

Leahy's amendment did not spell out the criteria for judging Indonesia's compliance. It left that determination up to the administration after consultations with Congress.

Blair began pushing to go to Indonesia. The NSC's deputies committee--comprised of deputies from the NSC, the State and Defense departments, the CIA and the Joint Staff--debated his trip in several meetings. Opinion was divided between the military and civilian agencies. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's top civilian staff and the Joint Staff strongly favored the trip, arguing that East Timor was strategically insignificant. The State Department and embassy staff argued that a visit was premature, since none of Leahy's conditions had been met.

While the deputies debated, Gelbard cabled his objections to the State Department, citing a dramatic increase in militia violence. He wrote that Indonesia's armed forces wouldn't let him fly his C-12 around the archipelago, preventing him from examining other troubled provinces. He noted that Indonesia's civilian defense minister had publicly denounced U.S. meddling and had refused to meet with him.

"We cannot be in a position where we seem more eager than they are," he explained later, in an interview in Jakarta.

The deputies committee ultimately sided with Blair but required him to clarify the U.S. conditions for resumption of ties.

Uncertain Footing

The day before Blair left for Jakarta, two lieutenant colonels and a couple of full colonels huddled in his Honolulu office to review a report from the U.S. defense attache in Indonesia, the chief military analyst on the ground.

The dispatch recapped some negative remarks President Abdurrahman Wahid had made about military cooperation with the United States. One of Blair's colonels told him that the attache "thinks that, in the long run, things are going to improve." But the attache recommended that Blair's trip be postponed.

Blair was unfazed. "I don't think an ambiguous speech by President Wahid should stop this. . . . Barring some huge cataclysmic event, we'll press forward," he said.

Blair's staff cautioned that Washington still might nix the trip by the time Blair arrived in Singapore, his first stop.

Blair was more concerned about ambiguities in the U.S. position. He still did not understand how the Indonesians would be judged on their compliance with Leahy's conditions. "What's the finish line?" he asked the staff.

No one really knew. The staff queried the Joint Staff in Washington. There was an answer when Blair reached Singapore.

Understanding the Rules.

On the Shangri La Hotel's 25th floor, overlooking Singapore, Blair digested the Joint Staff's vague response.

"We'll-know-it-when-we-see-it," it implied.

Blair was ready to get tough; he felt the Indonesians had been dragging their feet.

He was even less certain about what to expect from Gelbard. The ambassador had revised Blair's Jakarta schedule, which the admiral's staff suspiciously regarded as an effort to rein him in. Gelbard planned to go with Blair to meetings with military officials, but he had ruled out a CINC visit with the civilian minister of defense, who had riled Gelbard.

"This is going to be a strange visit," said Blair, shaking his head.

On a positive note, Gelbard had invited Blair to stay at his residence. Time together removed from the spotlight might give them time to iron out their differences.

With his habitually rumpled polo shirt and street-fighter manner, Gelbard impressed Blair with his insider's knowledge of Indonesia. Their first meeting reminded him that Gelbard's gruffness was nothing personal--just his personality.

Gelbard found Blair more realistic about his mission than the ambassador expected, given the Pentagon's aggressiveness in pushing his trip. He realized too that Blair understood he had to be tough on the Indonesians or his wishes for a renewed relationship might be rejected altogether.

Getting Tough

Even at dawn, Jakarta's downtown streets teem with bumper-to-bumper cars, rusted taxis and food carts. Blair's car worked its way through the tangle, turning onto a half-mile manicured driveway surrounded by palms and a golf course. This was the headquarters of Cilantrap, Indonesia's Pentagon.

Blair and Gelbard met with the deputy of the Indonesian armed forces, the air force chief of staff and, finally, the head of the navy. Blair asked about the military's reform plans, but the answers were cautious. Change takes time, they said.

As for East Timor, "it's behind us," another general told Blair dismissively.

Blair was quick to disagree. He pressed the U.S. case, that the military had not responded to the East Timor atrocities. "General, the army has behaved very unprofessionally and committed reprehensible acts . . . you have to have accountability trials," Blair insisted, according to a witness.

Gelbard was surprised by Blair's strong stance. "They were furious at what he said," Gelbard said. "They aren't used to a government speaking in one voice. Now, all of the sudden here was Admiral Blair. He was terrific."

Blair gave the same message to three high-ranking officers at a dinner at Gelbard's residence. Blair pushed. The Indonesians warned. The U.S. attitude "is good in a sense that we need wake-up calls," said Lt. Gen. Agus Widjoyo, a reformer and the army's chief of territorial affairs. "But don't push too hard because it could backfire."

Before Blair left Jakarta, he and Gelbard decided to prepare a joint cable to Washington outlining a step-by-step approach to reengaging Indonesia's military. It called for working with the air force, navy and marines, but not with the powerful army, until it had made more progress.

They also agreed to cut out the middlemen and talk to each other directly, even though their discussions sometimes turn into shouting matches.

Communication would be important as Indonesian troops became even more deeply involved in provincial violence throughout the archipelago.

Inducement to Reform

On May 17 the deputies committee approved Blair and Gelbard's phased approach to military reengagement and found there had been overall progress on democratic reform.

With that, Indonesia became eligible for Phase One engagements: high-level visits, conferences, ship visits, and small Navy and Air Force exchanges.

"It's good to give them an inducement to reform," said James Steinberg, then the deputy national security adviser. But, he added, "it will probably be several years before this is a thoroughly reformed institution."

But by summer's end, the entire plan was again put on hold after an upswing in Indonesian army-supported violence throughout the provinces.

In mid-August, the NSC decided to allow the sale of C-130 spare parts and sent a senior Marine general to visit. Blair and Gelbard say they believe the central military in Jakarta is losing its control over outlying regions. Militia violence in East and West Timor has increased and in early September military-supported militia members savagely killed three U.N. relief workers.

Since then, the U.S. government and United Nations have increased pressure on the military to disband and disarm the militias and hold accountability trials. The army appears to be in chaos. Wahid replaced his civilian defense minister with an academic who has no sway over the powerful institution. "Who is this guy?" a leading Indonesia official called to ask Gelbard recently.

Gelbard and Blair still hold opposite views of the Indonesia army's intentions.

Gelbard believes "we have continued to see virtually zero progress. In fact, they've gone backwards."

Blair thinks the transgressions are the byproduct of an untrained, underpaid military. "The pace of reform . . . is slower than we would like," he said. "But I am constantly reminded what a long distance [the army] has come."

They continue to shout at each other over the telephone. But they prefer not to think of these disputes as power struggles. They call their arguments "tactical disagreements."

see also

U.S.-Indonesia Military Assistance