How the media have protected U.S. Appeasement- Collusion with Indonesia in East Timor

Edward Herman


mainstream U.S. media have performed a semi-miracle in reporting on the East

Timor crisis, providing us with a model case of apologetics in the service of

state policy. Although the U.S. appeased and tacitly colluded with Indonesia as

the latter attempted to disrupt the August 30 referendum and then followed this

up with massive terrorization and destruction, and did this only months after

having savagely attacked Yugoslavia on the alleged basis of principled

opposition to ethnic cleansing, the media allowed the U.S. to get away with its

two track policy morally unscathed. Even the U.S.’s prized ally Indonesia came

off remarkably well, with no demonized leaders deserving of war crimes trials.


did the media do it? As usual, official explanations and rationales and opinion

columns by pundit apologists for state policy were allowed to set the agenda,

and serious critics were marginalized or excluded altogether. Both Bishop Belo

and the independence leader Jose Ramos-Horta, co-winners of the 1996 Nobel Peace

Prize, were given some voice, but not wanting to offend the Great Powers who

they were trying to persuade to constrain Indonesia, their appeals were moral

and minimized Great Power responsibility. Noam Chomsky and Allan Nairn, who

would have featured Great Power involvement and collusion, were excluded. So the

official line, in which the militias were running amok, Indonesia was

regrettably failing to rein them in, and the West was patiently urging Indonesia

to control the militias and out-of- control military subordinates, was

essentially uncontested.


features of the official line also went uncontested. These included the West’s

position that organizing the referendum was the UN’s responsibility, that the

U.S. could not "go everywhere, do everything" (National Security

Adviser Sandy Berger), and that in this particular case, Washington had to weigh

important global factors other than purely "humanitarian" ones in

deciding whether to act to prevent Indonesia from slaughtering East Timorese.


can identify a number of specific misrepresentations and suppressions that

allowed the media to put U.S. appeasement- collusion in an acceptable light.


Marginalizing or suppressing the continuity of U.S. appeasement of Indonesian

terror in East Timor. U.S. appeasement- collusion in 1999 closely parallels its

support of the invasion and occupation from 1975. Stressing this long-standing

policy of betrayal of human rights principles, and the earlier support of a

major genocide carried out by a U.S.-backed dictator, would put the current

betrayal of the East Timorese in a more sinister light. Only very rare opinion

columns (Alexander Cockburn in the L.A. Times of September 30; Herman and

Peterson in the Boston Globe, August 30) pressed this awkward history.


Failure to stress or criticize U.S. and British arming of Indonesia and training

of the Indonesian army. The U.S. and British have been arming Indonesia for

decades, helping it kill East Timorese and maintain internal

"security" against any democratic tendencies. The media have done an

outstanding job of normalizing this support of the military regime; we can

imagine the indignant Western outcries if Milosevic had been armed and his army

trained by an enemy state up to the time of the Rambouillet conference. But the

close U.S. and British relationship with the Indonesian military managers of the

"investors paradise" hardly elicited a sarcastic reference to the

"ethical foreign policy."


Taking the Indonesian army off the hook with the splintered authority model. In

U.S. client states like El Salvador and Argentina, the legitimacy of military

rule has always rested on a mythical splintered authority in which the generals

are unable to control their subordinates who kill and torture, allowing the

generals to be "moderates" (and their U.S. sponsors to be free of

responsibility for the death squads). This model is never applied to a Saddam or

Milosevic, but once again the media allow Wiranto to be unable to control his

rogue underlings!


Alleged lost leverage with limited military aid budget. This is another classic

of apologetics for U.S. inaction, and grotesque when combined with the durable

lie that U.S. military aid would help "democratize" the goons of

convenience that we have supported. The media and pundits never seem to find it

noteworthy that our goons are exceptionally prone to kill, torture, and

overthrow democratic governments. And the theory of lost leverage is completely

unconvincing: the Indonesian army would be terrified if the U.S. and its British

crony seriously threatened to cut off supplies and training, and if combined

with sanctions and a financial boycott there is every reason to believe that the

U.S. could virtually ORDER Indonesian compliance. But that would disturb the

"interests" at stake, so it doesn’t happen. But the media swallow the

lost leverage gambit, just as they do the splintered authority model.


Ignoring U.S. failure to ensure the security of the referendum. The deal

allowing a referendum in East Timor provided that Indonesia would provide

security for the election. This was an outrage, put in not to offend Indonesia.

Anything more would have required U.S. and other Western support, which was not

obtainable. Not only did the U.S. and its allies not press for more suitable

security arrangements, even after the militias started to disrupt and it became

evident that the Indonesian army was organizing and protecting them, the West

did nothing. Still more telling, Western intelligence knew from intercepted

cables many months before August 30 that the Indonesian army-militia combine

planned to destroy East Timor if the referendum was lost. The failure of the

West to take preventive action at that point amounts to collusion with

Indonesia. The mainstream media have almost entirely ignored this crucial

context that discredits Western policy.


Feebleness of response after August 30. After the referendum and the rapid

spread of militia-army carnage, the West still took no forceful actions and

never even made serious threats. They continued to insist that Indonesian rights

in East Timor–which the UN had never recognized, but the U.S. and its allies

had–be respected, and that Indonesia should carry out its responsibilities, or

be persuaded to allow a peacekeeping force (which began to embark, with

Indonesian permission, on September 19). No threats of military attacks on

Indonesia, or sanctions, were made; there were only very belated suspensions of

military training and aid and vague warnings of possible future negative

consequences. The media failed to stress the belatedness and weakness of the

response, the deference to the killers, and the remarkable contrast with the

violence of the West’s action in Yugoslavia.


The problem of Western credibility and honor. In the case of Kosovo, the resort

to bombing was alleged to have been necessary for NATO to maintain its

"credibility." But in East Timor, Western credibility as referendum

sponsors seemed to mean nothing, nor did Western honor as the West failed to

protect a people who had voted for their independence with an implied Western

guarantee. The media did not stress these points or focus on the contrast with



The hypocrisy of moral values. The Kosovo war had been fought on the claim that

moral values now decisively influenced Western foreign policy and that

"defenseless people" would now be protected. The two biggest blowhards

on the alleged role of ethics in foreign policy, Blair and Clinton, suddenly

turned around and found exceptions and problems in the case of East Timor. By

coincidence both of their governments did military and other business with

Indonesia and they and their predecessors had done so throughout the years of

the Suharto dictatorship. This provided a fish-in-the-barrel target for a

critical media, but the mainstream media remained exceedingly quiet on this

point. So the "ethical foreign policy" can continue in its

hyper-selective mode of operation under media protection.


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