Green Lights and Red Herrings



In December 1975, after receiving a green light from U.S. President Gerald and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Indonesian President Suharto launched an invasion of East Timor. The weapons for the attack came from the United States. "Of course there were US weapons used," commented one high-ranking Indonesian general. "These are the only weapons that we have."

U.S. law, however, prohibited Jakarta from using its U.S.-supplied weapons for purposes other than self-defense. When the State Department Legal Advisor Monroe Leigh raised this point in a cable to Kissinger, the Secretary of State exploded: "The Israelis when they go into Lebanon — when was the last time we protested that?" — an accurate observation that would soon become prophetic. Kissinger went on: "And we can’t construe a Communist government in the middle of Indonesia as self defense?" (Nation, 29 Oct. 1990, p. 492). Kissinger fans will recall his similar comment on authorizing the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected government: "I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people." Of course, Communism was a red herring in both cases.

In response to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, the U.S. publicly announced that it was suspended arms supplies to Jakarta, but, there was actually no interruption in weapons deliveries and, under Kissinger’s orders, the "suspension" was quietly lifted the next month.

In 1977, the Indonesians were beginning to run low on weapons, so the United States — now under the administration of President Jimmy Carter — accelerated the arms flow. And when Congressional restrictions prevented Carter from providing jets to Jakarta in 1978, he used Israel as a conduit: Israel sent U.S. warplanes to Indonesia while the United States re-supplied Israel. In the late 1970s, some 200,000 East Timorese — more than a quarter of the population — died under the ferocious Indonesian assault, made possible by U.S. weapons.

In 1982, the United States gave another green light, this time for a full-scale Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Two days after the Israeli armed forces, the IDF, rolled over the border, Secretary of State Alexander Haig told a news conference that President Reagan had "deferred judgment" on whether Israel’s use of U.S. weapons in Lebanon violated U.S. law. Over the ensuing weeks, Israel conquered half the country, killed thousands of civilians, destroyed countless homes, attacked Syrian forces in the Bekka Valley, and broke numerous truces. The Israeli army sat poised outside Beirut, alternately shelling the city, making tank forays, and cutting off its water and electric supply. The Reagan administration did hold up one shipment to Israel of cluster bombs (anti-personnel weapons being used by the IDF on Beirut), but pointedly declared that it would not make a legal determination about whether Israel had violated U.S. law. At the same time, Reagan assured Jewish leaders that his administration would not impose sanctions against Israel. On August 5, Reagan told Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir — in what might hold the record for understatement: "Should these Israeli practices continue, it will become increasingly difficult to defend the proposition that Israeli use of U.S. arms is for defensive purposes." These Israeli practices did continue, and U.S. arms continued to flow.

Israel justified its invasion by claiming PLO terrorism on the border (in fact the border had been quiet for eleven months except when there were Israeli provocations), that the Israeli ambassador to Britain had been shot in London (yes, but by a virulently anti-PLO organization), and that they were countering the Syrians (who were in Lebanon under an Arab League mandate, having been invited into the country in 1976, with encouragement from Washington and Tel Aviv, to combat a Palestinian-leftist coalition). In short, more red herrings.

Unfortunately, U.S. arming of foreign aggressors is not just a thing of the past. Consider an article in the New York Times of Feb. 3, 2000, by William A. Orme Jr. The thrust of Orme’s report is that a planned Israeli purchase of new "Apache" helicopters from the U.S. has been held up because Washington does not want to share secret military software with Israel for fear that the latter might transfer these secrets to China and India, customers for its own arms industry. But the article also mentions — in passing, and without further comment — how Israel’s current U.S. helicopters are being used and how the new ones will be used:

"Israel’s decade-old fleet of 42 Apaches is in almost daily combat use, flying three-hour round-trip sorties to southern Lebanon from carefully camouflaged hangars here. Air Force officers say their bombing raids against Hezbollah guerrilla targets would be more effective and pose less risk to crews if they could use the newer Longbow Apaches."

In other words, U.S. weapons are being used on a regular basis for military actions in a neighboring country without any objection from Washington, and a new sale of weapons for the specific purpose of further acts of aggression is being considered.

Of course, the Israelis claim — as they did in 1982 and as the Indonesians claimed in 1975 — that their actions are totally defensive. But when Israel first moved into southern Lebanon in a big way in 1978, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 425 which called "upon Israel immediately to cease its military action against Lebanese territorial integrity and withdraw forthwith its forces from all Lebanese territory" — a resolution Israel has been defying for more than two decades. For many years the pattern has been that when Lebanese guerrillas strike at IDF soldiers occupying southern Lebanon, Israel responds with what can only be called terrorism. For example, when 3 Israeli soldiers were killed in April 1993, "Israeli helicopters fired at least 15 missiles into three houses, a bakery and a valley outside the zone, as tanks and artillery slammed 200 shells around a string of villages in the region," wounding eight civilians and a UN soldier (NYT, 14 Apr. 1993, A13).

Israel’s new Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, has promised to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon by the summer. So why the need for the helicopters? A report by Deborah Sontag in the New York Times on Oct. 7, 1999, suggested an answer, noting that in order to minimize its own casualties the new IDF strategy is to emphasize airborne attacks: "What we are really doing is introducing technologies that partially substitute for the physical presence of soldiers," said Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh.

So it seems that once again U.S. weaponry will be facilitating international aggression. Washington provides the green light and endorses the red herrings. And it will continue to do so until we can exert the public pressure to stop it.


Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University in NJ. He is the author of Imperial Alibis and is currently working on Which Side Are You On? An Introduction to Politics.


Leave a comment