Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

Subject: Foreign Service Journal: The Price of Realpolitik

Also: Review in New Zealand International Review

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
Joseph Nevins, 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 Indonesia.

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 human rights.


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.

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A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor. (Book Review)

New Zealand International Review; 1/1/2006;

Stephen Hoadley

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 trials.

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 closure.

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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