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E Timor: The Elephant and the Fleas

by Alexander Cockburn


As the UN peacekeepers move into East Timor and deploy throughout the capital, Dili, the unfortunate inhabitants gratefully salute relief from the savage attacks of the Indonesian militias. Thankful though we should be at any stay to their suffering, we should not for one moment forget the utterly shameful role of successive governments of the United States in this bloody tale.

To take the most recent chapter first, it was obvious months ago to those familiar with East Timor that Indonesia was contriving mayhem around the long-awaited referendum on independence. If Indonesia's leaders and military had been warned months ago to behave themselves or expect serious sanctions, many lives might have been saved. But no such admonitions were made.

And so, the militias were unleashed by the Indonesian military, itself furious at the prospective nullification of its invasion , which began on Dec. 7, 1975, a few days after President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, visited Jakarta. The obvious inference that the itinerant American plenipotentiaries gave the go-ahead for Indonesia's onslaught was subsequently buttressed by publication of secret cables from the gallant Secretary of State instructing the U.S. embassy in Jakarta not to involve itself and "to cut down its reporting on Timor." Ninety percent of Indonesia's military equipment derived at that time from the United States.

We may assume that the U.S. embassy obeyed Kissinger's commands. Possibly owing to kindred secret briefings, or more likely out of basic instinct, the U.S. press followed suit. As Noam Chomsky puts it in one of his excellent essays on East Timor: "In The New York Times ... coverage of Timorese issues had been substantial in 1975, but declined as Indonesia invaded and reduced to zero as atrocities reached their peak with the new equipment provided by the Human Rights Administration (i.e. Jimmy Carter) in 1978.

The occasional reports carefully avoided the many Timorese refugees in Portugal and Australia, choosing to rely instead on Indonesian generals, who assured the reader, via the free press, that the Timorese who had been "forced" into the mountains by Fretilin (i.e. the Timorese independence movement) were fleeing from its "control" to Indonesian protection.

One man particularly involved in this terrible affair was the darling of New York's liberals, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Moynihan's job was to snuff out any organized protest in the United Nations against the invasion. In a secret cable to Secretary of State Kissinger on Jan. 23, 1976, he cited "considerable progress" in his tactics, and crowed that the "United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measurers it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

To paraphrase Nabokov in Lolita, accomplices to mass murder often have fancy prose styles. Moynihan certainly knew what was happening on the ground, pointing out that the level of East Timorese deaths -- estimated at around 200,000 -- at the hands of the invaders amounted to "10 percent of the population, almost the proportion of casualties experienced by the Soviet Union during the second World War." As Chomsky notes, "Moynihan is taking credit an achievement that he proudly compares to Hitler's in Eastern Europe." Moynihan had no shame, of course.

Three years later, he was the main speaker at a conference of the Committee for United Nations Integrity, where he deplored the fact that the organization was "no longer the guardian of social justice, human rights and equality among the nations," because it is "perverted by irrelevant political machinations."

Moynihan came to win the approval of the elites in the Johnson era, when he headed a team at the Labor Department that caused enormous comfort to these same elites by producing a report that concluded that the problem of black poverty could not really be addressed by decisive action, because its origins could be found within the "tangle of pathology" of the black family.

At about the same moment as Moynihan was thus deploying his fancy prose style, his ultimate boss, L.B.J., was giving expression to the realities of international power, in words both pithy and shorn of the pretensions habitually employed by intellectuals like Moynihan.

The leftish Papandreou regime in Greece was protesting the U.S. decision to establish NATO bases on Cyprus. The Greek ambassador in Washington invoked the Greek parliament as unlikely to accept the U.S. plan. Johnson exploded at the uppity diplomat: "F--- your parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant, Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If these two fellows continue itching the elephant, they may get whacked by the elephant's trunk, whacked good. ... If your Prime Minister gives me talk about democracy, parliament and constitution, he, his parliament and his constitution may not last very long."

As the ambassador left the room, Johnson shouted after him, "Don't forget to tell old Papawhatshisname what I told you. ... You hear?" It was not long before the Greek generals took over, and it was in this same Johnson era, in 1965, that the CIA abetted the coup that brought the Indonesian army to power, killing at least 800,000 leftists and setting the stage for the invasion of East Timor a decade later.