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Election 2008

see also  TAKE ACTION: Question Newly Elected Members of Congress on U.S. Policy toward East Timor and Indonesia

Where the Presidential Candidates Stand

The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) is non-partisan and does not and will not support any political party or candidates. Below we summarize the positions and history of a number of U.S. presidential candidates on some issues of concern to ETAN as they relate to Indonesia and East Timor (Timor-Leste). ETAN welcomes additional information and any corrections. Write us at

Senator Barack Obama (Democratic Party)

Obama lived in Indonesia for four years during his childhood, arriving in 1967 as a six-year old. He has emphasized the importance of his youth experiences in Southeast Asia, stating that they were “[p]robably the strongest experience I have in foreign relations.” In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama points out that “for the past sixty years the fate of [Indonesia] has been directly tied to U.S. foreign policy.” This policy has included “the tolerance and occasional encouragement of tyranny, corruption, and environmental degradation when it served our interests,” as well as “our tireless promotion of American-style capitalism and multinational corporations.” [1] In his earlier book, Dreams from My Father, Obama describes Suharto’s seizure of power: “Word was that the CIA had played a part in the coup, although nobody knew for sure. More certain was the fact that after the coup the military had swept the countryside for supposed Communist sympathizers. The death toll was anybody’s guess: a few hundred thousand, maybe, half a million. Even the smart guys at the Agency had lost count.” 

Obama serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its sub-committee for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Susan E. Rice, a top Obama foreign policy advisor has said that in an Obama administration, “[y]ou will see an understanding that Indonesia is one of the most important countries in the world.”

Members of Obama’s “senior working group on national security” have mixed records.   Madeline Albright was Secretary of State during the second Clinton administration and Tony Lake was National Security Advisor, and during their tenures activists continually struggled to move the U.S. policy to restrict support to the Indonesian military. The U.S. temporarily cutoff military assistance to Indonesia in 1999, as its military and proxy militias destroyed East Timor, but only after a massive outcry. By the middle of the next year, some military contacts resumed. Former Senator David Boren, another senior advisor, sat on the board of Phillips Petroleum – which was involved in drilling for oil in the Timor Gap during the Indonesian occupation – during the 1990s and early 2000s. During an official visit to Indonesia in 1992, Jakarta refused him permission to go to East Timor.

Other Obama advisors include Merrill Anthony (“Tony”) McPeak, retired Air Force Chief of Staff, who oversaw the transfer of fighter planes to Indonesia in the early 1990s. Richard Holbrooke has a long history of involvement with U.S./Indonesian relations. In his role as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the Carter administration, Holbrooke was the major architect of U.S. policy toward Indonesia and East Timor during the late 1970s. At that time, U.S. military assistance to the Suharto regime increased. In 1980 Holbrooke declared that Indonesia was “perhaps one of the greatest nations in the world.” Later, Holbrooke, as UN ambassador under President Clinton, supported the UN-organized referendum and argued for Indonesian accountability for human rights violations in East Timor and elsewhere, but when asked he has refused to acknowledge his own role in the occupation of East Timor.

Obama inserted language in the 2006 Foreign Affairs Authorization bill calling for resolution to the conflict in Aceh. He has stated that as president he would create a “Shared Security Partnership Program,” which would “provide $5 billion over three years for counter-terrorism cooperation with countries around the world, including information sharing, funding for training, operations, border security, anti-corruption programs, technology, and targeting terrorist financing.” While the program will “focus on helping our partners succeed without repressive tactics,” it is unclear how this will function with an unreformed and corrupt Indonesian security apparatus that maintains a deeply entrenched culture of impunity.

Obama has yet to speak to calls for an international tribunal for crimes against humanity committed by Indonesia against the East Timorese.

Senator John McCain (Republican Party)

McCain was first elected to the Senate in 1986. In 2006, he argued that Indonesia “can be a great force for peace and stability in the region, if they develop along the lines that we want them to,” as well a regional counter to China. He has recently called for an “elevated partnership with Indonesia,” though he has yet to clarify what that means.

McCain receives advice from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who along with President Gerald Ford gave Indonesian president Suharto the “green light” to invade East Timor in 1975. McCain describes Kissinger as one of his heroes.

McCain, in a 2007 article in Foreign Policy wrote that “[t]he United States should set the standard for trade liberalization in Asia,” by “…institutionalizing economic partnerships with…Indonesia” in building toward “an ambitious Pacific-wide effort to liberalize trade.”

In November 1991, he signed a letter with 51 other Senators expressing human rights and humanitarian concerns about East Timor following the Santa Cruz massacre. In June 1994, he voted to oppose a provision that would require that any lethal military equipment supplied to Indonesia “shall expressly state the understanding that the equipment may not be used in East Timor.”  The motion to end consideration of the provision passed 59-35.

McCain has yet to address calls for an international tribunal for crimes against humanity committed by Indonesia against the East Timorese.

A September 23 op-ed in The Australian newspaper on U.S.-Australia alliance does not mention by name Australia's neighbors East Timor and Indonesia.

Cynthia McKinney (Green Party)

McKinney served 12 years in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from Georgia. She is running for the presidency on the Green Party ticket. She has a long-history of supporting human rights, and has been a supporter of justice and human rights in East Timor. She circulated information about Indonesia and East Timor to her colleagues and signed letters and co-sponsored resolutions and legislation in support of human rights and opposing military assistance to Indonesia.

During the 1990s McKinney worked to pass the Arms Transfer Code of Conduct, which would have restricted weapons sales to regimes that regularly violate human rights. In May 1998, she was the chief sponsor of the Indonesian Human Rights Before Military Assistance Act, which would have barred weapons and ammunition transfers to Indonesia pending Presidential certification that “the Government of Indonesia has been elected in free and fair elections, does not repress civilian political expression, and has made substantial improvement in human rights conditions in Indonesia, East Timor, and Irian Jaya (West Papua).” In 2000 she co-sponsored the East Timor Transition to Independence Act. In 2000 she supported resolution 395, which condemned the attack on UN aid workers in West Timor, condemned the role of Indonesia in organizing the systematic violence that took place against the East Timorese in 1999, and called for restrictions on U.S. military support until Indonesia met human rights conditions. In 2002 she signed an international letter from women’s rights activists calling for an international criminal tribunal for East Timor.

The Green Party platform says that “our government to prohibit all arms sales to foreign nations and likewise prohibit grants to impoverished and undemocratic nations unless the money is targeted on domestic, non-military needs.”

Ralph Nader (Independent)

During his presidential campaign in 2000, Nader was asked what is foreign policy would look like. He explained, “We [would] basically engage in a lot of preventive diplomacy, a lot of preventive defense. Preventive diplomacy would have dealt with situations like Indonesia, instead of the Kissinger diplomacy that led to East Timor and a lot of other travails there. The same with Vietnam. We seem to always side with the dictators and the oligarchs and never with the peasants and the workers.” Nader’s campaign points out that, if elected, he “would cut the military budget to a level needed to protect the country.”

Bob Barr (Libertarian Party)

Barr was a Republican representative from Georgia from 1995 until 2003. He is running for President for the Libertarian Party. Barr’s position on foreign policy is that “[t]he American purpose is to provide a strong national defense, not to engage in nation building or to launch foreign crusades, no matter how seemingly well-intentioned.” The Libertarian Party is highly critical of foreign aid. Its platform calls for an “end [to] the current U.S. government policy of foreign intervention, including military and economic aid.” In a May 2007 article, Barr wrote that President Bush stretched this authority beyond reason in late 2004 when he ordered it lowered in remembrance of the thousands killed by the Indian Ocean tsunami in Indonesia and other countries.

Barr’s campaign states that they have “no specific position” on either U.S. military assistance to Indonesia, nor accountability for crimes committed against the East Timorese by Indonesia.

Brian Moore (Socialist Party)

Moore calls for closing all U.S. military facilities that train foreign military and paramilitary personnel and an end U.S. arms sales in the world.

[1] Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.


see also ETAN: Guide to U.S. Security Assistance to Indonesia and East Timor (revised April 2008)


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