Howard and East Timor

Paul Kelly, Editor-at-large | September 05, 2009

Article from: The Australian

EAST Timor was John Howard's coming of age, the point at which the novice was transformed into a national security leader. This was Australia's most important military involvement since the Vietnam War. From this point Howard became a bolder prime minister. His actions after 9/11 cannot be comprehended without reference to East Timor.

Paul Kelly: The March of Patriots

Melbourne University Press 
To be published next week, $59.99

According to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade chief Ashton Calvert, an architect of the policy: "John Howard's diplomacy over East Timor was the most impressive example of head-of-government international advocacy that I saw in my career."

The East Timor story is riddled with myths. Three of the benchmarks should be defined at the outset.

First, in early 1999, Howard and his foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer recognised that an independent East Timor was likely and they worked to achieve this result.

Second, the crisis became an example of Australian-American alliance co-operation and not the disaster often depicted. And, third, the Australian-led UN intervention was successful because of Jakarta's acquiescence and its decision not to contest Australian forces in a theatre where pro-Indonesian forces had a numerical superiority.

  The radicalisation of Paul Keating
Paul KeatingTHE engineering company of which his father became a part owner, Marlak Engineering, won a contract in the early 1970s to supply dredges to the Malaysian government. "To cut short a long story," Paul Keating says. "We banked with the old ES&A bank. Well, they wouldn't give you any money. They would only give you 60 per cent of the land and buildings. That was it. There was virtually no way my father and partner could do it. And the bank didn't care. They just didn't care. The more I watched these banks the more hopeless I realised was Australia's plight. They were smug. They banked people whose creditworthiness minimised risk to them, people who had wealth already. I saw it as a conspiracy against the common man."

Asked about the damage to the Indonesian relationship, Downer says: "They loved us a lot less but respected us a lot more." Often an undiplomatic foreign minister, Downer says of the intervention: "I mean, the others (regional nations) could never have done this. They know that but they are not going to put out a press release saying that."

The Howard Letter: In October 1998, after the Howard government was re-elected, Downer told Calvert: "I want to be more proactive on East Timor."

He was talking to the right man. Calvert disagreed with the pro-Indonesia stand of former department head Dick Woolcott and believed Australia had finished with an untenable stance on East Timor: "In public we had to criticise Indonesia's conduct, yet in private we were largely supportive of Indonesia's policy."

Under Calvert's guidance, DFAT prepared a cabinet submission for Downer and a draft letter from Howard to Indonesia's president B.J. Habibie. On November 30, 1998, Calvert sent Downer a memo marked secret with a draft letter attached.

This letter would be reworked and dispatched from Howard's office 19 days later. But Calvert's note signalled the new thinking on East Timor policy.

He wrote: "You will note it (the draft letter) picks up on your thought that, in effect, there are only two realistic scenarios for the future of East Timor: either full independence (and probably sooner rather than later) or some form of free association with Indonesia achieved as the end point of a process."

  Keating and a republic
Don RussellIN September 1992, six months before the election, Keating's top aide, Don Russell, urged his boss to reassess the republic push. In a memo to Keating, Russell wrote: "It is best if you make it clear that while you are not backing off one inch in your personal view that the symbols should change, such changes are not key issues at the moment." Russell advised Keating to say: "I suspect it will take the better part of a decade to resolve how a republic would actually work (and) there are much more important things I need to do at present with my energies and time."

This note reveals the true Downer-Calvert position that unless Indonesia could legitimise its incorporation, the radicalisation of East Timor opinion would lead, one way or another, to independence.

Before the letter was sent, Downer told his senior officials: "Much as you may not like this, one day that place will be independent."

But independence, at this point, was not their policy. They preferred to see the Indonesian incorporation succeed and become legitimised. This was Australia's firm position. The reality, however, is that by proposing a ballot (an act of self-determination), even a far-off ballot, Howard was opening the door to independence. Dressed up to help Habibie, the beauty and the trap in the Howard letter was its ambivalence, and Habibie saw through it.

Meanwhile deputy prime minister Tim Fischer was excited. "This was the most important letter written in the Howard years," he says.

"There were two letters written last century that led to nations being created: the Balfour letter and the Howard letter." (The first letter, written in 1917 by Britain's foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, had pledged a homeland for the Jewish people.)

  The prime minister and the governor
Ian MacfarlaneAN angry John Howard dismissed as "stupid, ignorant and wrong" anybody who blamed him for the (early 2000) currency plunge. But the Reserve Bank blamed him. "It is undoubtedly true," bank governor Ian Macfarlane says of Howard's culpability. "We knew it because our people were sitting there." The plunge came directly from the PM's comments; Howard was the guilty man. "It makes us look like a banana republic," Macfarlane says of Howard's performance. "It makes us look as though this isn't a serious currency. I know he didn't set out to do it. But we (the Reserve Bank) were very upset."

Habibie's Audacity: In late January 1999 the Indonesian cabinet took its remarkable decision. East Timor would be offered a consultation (later defined as a referendum) on autonomy or independence. This was Habibie's personal decision; it was impetuous, audacious, dangerous and utterly stunning. Habibie had called the bluff of the old pro-Suharto establishment and the army.

While Howard and Downer were surprised by Habibie's leap, they were not dismayed. Howard says: "I felt that once Habibie had agreed to it (a referendum) that the result would probably go the way of independence. Rather than it being a contestable goal it seemed to me inevitable."

"This referendum was only going to go one way," Downer says. Yet many Indonesian leaders could not see this. Australia's position became support for a UN-supervised ballot later in 1999. While telling Indonesia that autonomy would be the best result, Howard and Downer, as 1999 advanced, became willing backers of an independent East Timor.

There was, however, abject internal confusion about Australian government objectives. Defence Department deputy secretary Hugh White, the leading strategist, defined what he believed were Australia's objectives. They were: having East Timor remain part of Indonesia; ensuring ties with Jakarta were put before the fate of East Timor; retaining Australia's military ties with Indonesia; and avoiding any Australian Defence Force deployment, if possible.

These were White's principles guiding the Defence Department; each of them was trashed before the end of the year, proof of the violation of policy orthodoxy that Howard and Downer would entertain.

Showdown at Bali: The Liquica and Dili massacres were a turning point. Howard had read Australian intelligence assessments that implicated the TNI (Indonesia's armed forces) with the militia resistance.

  John Howard meets Tony Blair
Tony Blair and John HowardAT one point John Howard, trying to be clever, asked Tony Blair: "What are you going to do with the Thatcher legacy?" Blair paused, he sat up straight, extended his arms and broke into a huge grin. "I'm going to take the lot," he chortled. Blair laughed but Howard seemed stunned. It wasn't the answer he expected. On his return to the hotel Howard was fuming. "That man's a bloody chameleon. He doesn't stand for anything," Howard declared.

Downer told Howard: "You have got to get him (Habibie) to agree to more than 50 UN police, this is hopeless because there is too much violence." By going to Bali to meet Habibie, Howard accepted that Australia was the principal regional power with responsibility to secure an acceptable outcome.

En route to Bali and before the meeting, the differences within Australia's delegation were stark. White argued that Australia must demand peacekeepers before the vote. Calvert disagreed, insisting that neither Habibie nor the Indonesian political system would tolerate peacekeepers.

On April 27, Howard began the Bali talks with a private meeting with Habibie. "I tried very hard," Howard says of this meeting.

"I raised the question of getting peacekeepers in before the referendum. But Habibie was absolutely emphatic that it wasn't acceptable. He basically said to me, 'I'd be dead politically if I agreed to this', and he was right." They began to discuss, instead, how to strengthen the police numbers and this became Howard's main hope.

The plenary meeting was large with 14 representatives from each nation. The Indonesian performance was filled with brazenness, intransigence and mendacity. Habibie pledged to prevent violence but his contempt for East Timor was undisguised.

Looking straight at Howard, Habibie said he would not be "insulted and embarrassed because of 700,000 people in East Timor". He said: "East Timor would always have problems. If integration was chosen, those who wanted independence would cause problems. If it separated, those who preferred integration would cause problems." Then he threatened: if East Timor became uncontrollable before the ballot then Indonesia would unilaterally walk out (that meant civil war between separatists and integrationalists).

  A treasurer's disillusion
John DawkinsTHE (1993) budget furore only confirmed treasurer John Dawkins's departure decision. "I had a game plan in mind," he says. "I would produce the necessary unpopular budget, take responsibility for it and then retire from politics. The truth is that (Bob) Hawke gave (Paul) Keating as treasurer more support in cabinet than Paul as prime minister gave me." 

Edited extracts

In a series of exchanges Howard warned that if the ballot lacked integrity, then "Indonesia's international standing would be damaged". But Howard was searching for political leverage. The Australian record of the conversation says: "He (Howard) did not think it was realistic to expect 40-50 police advisers, as had reportedly been suggested, could do the job. Australian personnel would also be participating. He needed some assurance about their safety. He would be asked by the media and others if he was satisfied with security arrangements. He meant no disrespect to Indonesian sovereignty but he needed room to move on this issue." 

White says: "I was shocked when Howard said this. His argument was for Habibie to save him from political embarrassment at home. He wanted Indonesia to solve his own political problem." 

The Indonesians remained intransigent. Despite the formality of the plenary, military commander Wiranto , sitting next to Habibie, gestured in a slashing motion, saying to Habibie yet not looking at him, "No, no." He was giving Habibie his orders. "Habibie got very aggressive about it," Downer says. "But remember, he was speaking in front of (foreign minister Ali) Alatas and Wiranto. Our position was that 50 civilian police was completely inadequate." 

Wiranto said: "If Australian citizens did not trust the Indonesian military and police to maintain peace and security, then they need not come to East Timor." Howard ignored this gratuitous comment and directed his remarks to Habibie. He asked "if the UN were to propose a police contingent of several hundred, (whether) this would be acceptable to Indonesia". 

Alatas was alarmed by this notion. Habibie said it would be difficult to have such numbers and claimed, incredibly, that "even without increased police numbers the current security situation in East Timor presented no problems". But Howard pressed him again, insisting Australia "as a contributor" had a right to express such views. And with this Howard suddenly broke through. The mercurial Habibie said he "now understood the prime minister's point". 

They quickly agreed on a form of words. The Australians had said informally that the increase in police advisers should be 200 to 300, so Howard had more flesh for the meagre bones. He left Bali with extremely limited concessions, the minimum needed to look tenable. "We came out of the meeting with enough to argue that the process should advance," Downer says. By appealing to Indonesia as a friend, Howard probably used the best tactic.

The Risk of War: Australia took a deliberate decision that the ballot should proceed despite flawed security. This responsibility fell on Howard and Downer. The moral justification, ultimately, was that this was what the East Timorese leaders wanted. 

The August 30 vote transformed the politics. "The violence was a lot worse than I anticipated," Downer says. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan promptly rang Howard to ask if Australia would be prepared to lead a multinational force. Howard agreed. But he told Annan that Australia must lead. "I made that clear," Howard says. "I had the idea that the leadership might end up being a bit negotiable. I made it clear that I wouldn't accept that." Initially there was very little international support for a peacekeeping force. 

For US president Bill Clinton, East Timor was not on the radar. Misjudging this, Howard expected Clinton to support the international force not just in political terms but with a US troop commitment. Howard rang Clinton, only to be turned down. "We're very heavily stretched. We can't offer troops," Clinton said. "There's a lot of resistance to us committing ourselves any further, we've got many thousands in Kosovo." Howard was caught out. "I expressed my intense disappointment," Howard says. "We made our position very clear." For Howard, this was a violation of the alliance's spirit. 

Howard and Downer were charged up. Downer went public on CNN to criticise the administration and on September 7 he took a call from US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. She rang to express her anger. "You're not as angry as we are about your attitude," Downer shot back. On September 8 the White House decided to support a peacekeeping force and Clinton rang Howard to say the US would make a "tangible contribution". America was committed in political terms; this was more important than troops. Clinton moved to smash Habibie's resistance to a UN force by mobilising the might of the US. 

On the eve of the operation US secretary of defence William Cohen went to Jakarta for meetings with Habibie and Wiranto. Cohen told them the world expected Jakarta to co-operate with the Australian-led UN operation. "Any Indonesian forces that contest them will meet US forces," Cohen said. This was a reference to a marine group in the Pacific. "The marines were just offshore and everyone knew they were there," former commander of the International Forces in East Timor Peter Cosgrove says. Calvert had no doubt about the importance of Cohen's visit. "This gave John Howard a lot of assurance," he says. 

The opening days of the deployment were the most dangerous of Howard's prime ministership to that point. Howard expected casualties. Habibie refused to take his calls. Australian troops were told they would be targets. White says: "We were very exposed. If the militias had resisted we would have had trouble. If backed by TNI, we would have been defeated." 

East Timor saw Australia's acceptance in psychological, political and military terms of a stronger regional security responsibility. "This was the first time we had done this without American combat forces," Howard says. On East Timor Howard created the nexus between military action and populist politics that would henceforth mark his leadership. 

Edited extract from The March of Patriots by Paul Kelly, published by MUP next week ($59.99). 

Further extracts will be published tomorrow in News Limited Sunday newspapers and in The Australian on Monday.


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