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. How did the media do
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
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. Other
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.
We can identify a number of specific misrepresentations and suppressions
that allowed the media to put U.S. appeasement- collusion in an acceptable
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
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
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
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 Kosovo.
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.
in Z Magazine, October
S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
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