Howard may be history on Timor
Date: September 13 2009The former Coalition government had a vastly different idea of how independent our near neighbour should be than what eventuated.
IN THE late 1990s, as world opinion began a long-overdue shift against Indonesia's carefully considered and finely orchestrated campaign of human rights abuse in East Timor, the penny finally began to drop among the guardians of our national interest within the Department of Foreign affairs and Trade.
Indonesia, they figured, was on a collision course with Europe, the US, and therefore Australia, over the future of the tiny Indonesian province to our north. The international outrage over Indonesia's brutality was leading inexorably to a potential security and diplomatic crisis between Australia and Jakarta over the future of East Timor.
Despite the considerable distance between Dili and Washington, debate had long raged within Congress about Indonesia's conduct in East Timor, whose then roving ambassador Jose Ramos-Horta, had found some very sympathetic ears, especially among senior Catholics like Senator Ted Kennedy, in the Democratic Party.
By 1997 Kennedy and others were openly lobbying officials in the Clinton White House about American arms sales to Jakarta and the parallel issue of Indonesian military atrocities in East Timor.
By mid-1998, then Indonesian president B.J. Habibie – reflecting his and the Indonesian military elite's view that the East Timorese were essentially an ungrateful rabble – was discussing with his cabinet the possibility of granting some sort of autonomy to East Timor.
There was no such back-room or public debate in Australia. Here, questions about East Timor had been pretty much officially decried as the obsession of the left intelligentsia. This had been the case since the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975.
Suddenly, however, towards the end of '98 news filtered out of DFAT that Australia was preparing to change on East Timor. Australia would now support semi-autonomy – a somewhat ambiguous state that would, preferably, be unilaterally granted by Jakarta rather than voted upon.
Sensing a diplomatic opportunity, our then prime minister John Howard famously wrote to Habibie in December 1998 suggesting that after a period of autonomy, East Timor should be granted an act of determination.
Those privy to Australia's policy shift insist the "period of autonomy" envisaged by the PM and his foreign minister Alexander Downer was at least a decade.
In other words, the Howard-Downer plan involved East Timor remaining yoked to Jakarta until about now, when an independence ballot might have been put. They did not anticipate Habibie's impetuous response that East Timor should be granted an immediate choice.
So, those who were privy to what was always intended as a nuanced rather than radical policy shift under the former Coalition government, have greeted with some surprise the suggestion that Howard and Downer were secretly working towards an independent East Timor all along.
There has been similar surprise and disbelief at another suggestion that, while East Timor descended into violence after voting for independence in August 1999, Clinton's White House was somehow disengaged from the security implications of what was happening.
These suggestions, based on interviews with Downer and Howard, are included in a new book, The March of Patriots, by respected journalist Paul Kelly.
It is true, as Kelly records, that after the independence vote Clinton rejected a direct personal request from Howard for American troops for an Australian-led multinational peace enforcement mission for East Timor.
But Clinton's rejection came well after months of protracted pressure from Washington for Australia to take an early security lead in East Timor, immediately after the ballot.
Washington, not surprisingly, saw East Timor as part of Canberra's beat. Nonetheless, from early 1999, Washington was making it clear to Australia the US was willing to go it alone if Australia failed its implied obligations to take the post-ballot security lead.
Clinton's eventual rejection came after at least two occasions when Australian and US officials disagreed on the appropriate external military response to the looming crisis in Timor. America, characteristically perhaps, favoured a “big stick” swift and hard international military response to end the violence that could be anticipated to greet a vote for independence. Australia was apparently fearful of antagonising and confronting Jakarta.
We know this because some of the diplomatic cables recording those meetings leaked around the time of the ballot. The cables contradicted Downer's earlier denials that America had shared its plan to unilaterally deploy thousands of troops through Darwin, in the event of a security crisis in East Timor.
Downer also denied that there was any difference between Australian and US contingencies for enforcing post-ballot security. All the while he insisted, to save Jakarta face, despite overwhelming intelligence to the contrary, the Indonesian military was not orchestrating pro-Indonesia militia violence in East Timor.
It's worth recounting one cable that annoyed Downer and Howard. It is dated June 21, 1999, recording a conversation in Hawaii between Australian and US Defence officials.
It reads, in part: "PACOM (US Pacific Command) planning for any peace enforcement operation is based on using 'overwhelming force' in order to 'stop the killing'. Once this has been achieved, PACOM envisages the operation would then revert to being a peacekeeping operation under US auspices. The US is planning to use Darwin as an intermediate staging base or any operation (including peace enforcement) in East Timor. Marine Force Pacific have requested Australia agree to the provision of Australian liaison officers to any enforcement operation in East Timor."
The cable records Australia's then Air Vice-Marshal Bob Treloar as saying he "would take the request back to Australia because it would require consideration at a senior level of government".
This happened. And the "request" – for it was nothing less than that – was shelved at a senior level of government and the Americans were politely told "no thanks".
By the time Howard phoned Clinton, the White House had determined Australia would be taking the lead in East Timor.
History accurately records the subsequent Australian-led InterFET operation a resounding success, thanks in part to the provision of US equipment and an American naval ship packed with marines anchored just off the East Timor coast.
However, history may treat more cynically the secret Howard-Downer plan for an independent East Timor.
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