“Two-handed engine”: Wikileaks, the Defense of Diplomatic Secrecy, and East Timor

by zunguzungu

This is a long post, almost 7000 words, so proceed with caution. It began with Wikileaks and Scott Gilmore’s article “In Defense of Secrecy,” but most of it’s about East Timor and the larger problem — which I recognize in retrospect as the motivation — of our apparent inability to see what diplomats and militaries do as part of the same thinking apparatus; no matter how clichéd Clausewitz has become, we use a different set of paradigms to judge what the Defense department does from what the department of State does. This is a dangerous double standard.

The logic behind leaking diplomatic cables seems to be different than the logic behind producing a document like the “Collateral Murder” video. The latter is a recognizable piece of muck-raking in the classic sense, since the aesthetic and ethical response is it designed to provoke is horror: showing us video of an Apache helicopter killing non-combatants (and letting us hear the disregard for human life in the voices of the pilots as they did so), the point of the video was to take something that repetition has rendered banal — “collateral damage” — and re-stage it as unnatural, perverse, horrible, and unacceptable, as “collateral murder.”

While Wikileaks also released the unedited footage, Raffi Khatchadourian’s New Yorker piece focuses on the ways Wikileaks tried to shape its reception, cutting the raw tape to emphasize the parts they wanted to emphasize, adding captions, and framing it with an inflammatory title and a George Orwell quote (“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind”). And in describing how Wikileaks went about deciding where and how to edit the video — choosing that title, for example, instead of the less explicit “Permission to Engage” — Khatchadourian gives us space to see the video through the lens which Defense Secretary Robert Gates offers us:

“These people can put anything out they want and are never held accountable for it.” The video was like looking at war “through a soda straw,” he said. “There is no before and there is no after.”

There is certainly some validity to this argument. Wikileaks did work to shape the narrative by making decisions about what to show us and what not to show us. Calling it “murder” before we’ve even seen the event is not a act of passive journalism, and if Wikileaks is working to publicize events in our world which we were not otherwise cognizant of, they are doing so with purpose and intent, as a kind of civil disobedience, working as hard to make the story as they are to simply report it.

But there’s nothing “simple” about reporting “the story.” All “facts” come to us embedded in contextual cues and narratives that prompt us on how to respond. When we see an American military helicopter firing on shadowy faceless figures carrying an unidentifiable object, after all, do Americans remember that they are Americans as they watch? And reflect on how Americans have been the targets of terror attacks by shadowy faceless figures, maybe like these? If we’ve been conditioned by television and films to regard Arabs as dangerous villains — and we have —  is the way we respond to these moving images influenced by those moving images? Is it relevant that we hear the voices of the pilots — making them persons, present to us, legible to us — while their victims are faceless ciphers? Are we influenced by video games that play out this very scenario, with us in the cockpit? As we struggle to make sense of the event we see in front of us, does it influence us that one interpretation — murder — will make us feel bad and uncomfortable, while the other — justifiable, collateral damage — will make us feel less bad?

I think the answer is yes to at least some of these questions at least some of the time. As consumers of news, we are sometimes passive and sometimes active; sometimes we question what we see and look straight on at the things that make us uncomfortable, and sometimes we don’t. And the way we can be most comfortable about the world we live in is to forget how often and how pervasively we get manipulated by the people who serve us our news, to pleasantly overlook how carefully packaged and framed and edited and commented upon every image and word we ever receive already is.

After all, the alternative to Wikileaks’ editing that footage is for someone else to edit it, and if we look critically at and question the way that Wikileaks has presented it to us — and we should do that — then we should also criticize the alternative that Secretary Gates wants us to view. Which is to not view it at all. In this sense, while Khatchadourian’s New Yorker piece is more or less fair as far as it goes, it doesn’t go very far: Assange is shown editing and crafting and interposing himself between us and “reality,” while Secretary Gates — the man who denied Reuters’ FOIA requests for the footage — is given to us as media critic, the guy pointing out to us how our reality has been distorted by the villainous Julian Assange. The man who suppressed the tape in its entirety is heard complaining that Assange has suppressed parts of it. But both are doing more or less the same thing: Assange gives us a picture of the event that makes it look like murder, while Gates gives us a picture of the even in which it is not.

Leaking those diplomatic cables, on the other hand, would seem to be something altogether different, which is part of why the conversations about Wikileaks have changed. Wikileaks has “cooperated” with the US government in a certain ways (through the mediation of the big newspapers) to redact certain aspects of the leaks; they are not, despite the hyperbolic claims of their detractors, releasing information indiscriminately. One could certainly still complain that they’re not discriminating in the right ways. But where Gates complained that the “Collateral Murder” video had been altered, arguing that it could not be trusted because it didn’t show the whole story, the problem with what Wikileaks is doing now — say its critics — is that the cables have not been sufficiently altered, that certain information can and should legitimately be kept secret. I want to fixate on this argument — the argument for the value of secrecy as such — because it comes from a different place than Gates’ lament about the perniciously edited footage. There, Gates implicitly conceded that we have some basic right to know the truth, and that the problem is simply that we‘ve been denied it: if you could only see the whole video, he argues, you would understand that our soldiers are just doing their job. Here, the line is the opposite: if only things could be kept secret, they say, all would be well.

I think it would be fair to say that we in the United States have a certain tradition of being, if not skeptical of the military, at least open to the argument that the military has to be watched pretty closely. Americans love us some soldiers, but we nevertheless tend to presume, at a certain basic and conceptual level, that the job of the soldier is to be beholden to civilian leadership and public oversight. It’s in the constitution both of our laws and of our assumptions about what the military is, which is why we have neither a tradition nor the real possibility of direct military political leadership. I suspect, then, that this is why conservatives work so hard to lionize the soldiery: since the military is constitutionally and conceptually subordinate to the civilian leadership and mass public, insisting that they almost never do bad things — that they are supernaturally good human beings — is a way of easing up on the kind of actual oversight and civilian control over the military that we constitutionally presume. The non-military always has the right to oversee the military, but if — as Gates’ statement presumes — we don’t need to, if we can trust them, then we won‘t actually have to. We give our soldiers free rein in practice, just not in theory.

However, to say that because we can trust the military, we don’t need to rigorously oversee their actions, is a significantly different argument than the argument which is made in explicit defense of the positive value of diplomatic secrecy. Gates is not arguing that it is a positive good for the military to operate without supervision; even in our hyper-militarized society, that’s still a relatively minority position. His point, informed by long military tradition, is simply that oversight is superfluous, not that its absence is, actually and in and of itself, a positive necessity.

The argument in direct defense of diplomatic secrecy comes from a different place, and from a different set of rhetorical principles. This article “In Defense of Secrecy” – was written by former Canadian diplomat Scott Gilmore, and seems more or less representative (it’s a blog post he wrote last Tuesday which was then picked up by a the Globe and Mail).

The heart of his argument is that what diplomats do is work for human rights, and that they use secret cables to do it. “The third most common topic in the WikiLeaks cables is human rights,” he argues — with a graph to prove it — and portrays “American diplomats doing the same thing we were trying to do in Indonesia: Make the world a little better.” He talks in some lurid detail about his posting in Indonesia during the two and half decades the Suharto regime was committing genocide on the East Timorese people, and closes with this “Thankfully, for the Timorese at least, WikiLeaks did not exist in the 1990s.”

There are three propositions here that we need to disentangle: (A) American diplomats essentially work to “make the world a little better,” (B) the people of East Timor were significantly helped, in some way, by diplomats like him, and (C) just as Wikileaks is today impeding the efforts of American diplomats to do what they do, if Wikileaks had existed in 1999, it would have impeded the efforts by American and Canadian diplomats to “make the world a little bit better.”

I disagree with all three of these propositions, and I’ll explain why, at ponderous length. But first, let us take in the rest of Scott Gilmore’s account of himself:

…while posted in Jakarta, my job was to find out as much as I could about the human rights abuses being committed by the Indonesian government, and to help apply whatever pressure we could on Jakarta to make them stop.  I wrote cables back to Ottawa that would raise the hair on the back of your neck. Describing abuses that make me sick even now to think about them. These cables gave my government the ammunition it needed to lean heavily on the Indonesian leadership at the UN and at summits like APEC.

…Every few months, I would go visit a small white-washed school in the hills of Indonesian occupied Timor. The young teacher who ran the school would cheerfully bring me into her office, and we would chat about small things while her uniformed students would serve us strong coffee and homemade buns. Once the students left and closed the door, she would open her desk drawer and hand me horrifying photos of disinterred bodies. The Timorese resistance would dig up the fresh graves of torture victims, take photos for evidence, and pass them through their secret network to the teacher, who would then pass them to me and other diplomats. With that information we knew what the Indonesian military was doing and that the government in Jakarta was lying to the international community. And we could confront them, and we could pressure them to change.  And ultimately, thanks to the perseverance of the Timorese and the efforts of thousands of  diplomats and activists and politicians, this worked. The international arm twisting led to a referendum, and Timor is now independent.

Again, there is an implicit chain of propositions here that add up to a coherent narrative: (A) diplomats need information about abuses in order to do their job of making the world a little bit better, (B) secretly transmitting that information back to their government is necessary to protect their sources so as to maintain the flow of information, (C) the “international arm twisting” which that information enabled “led to a referendum, and Timor is now independent,” and (D) East Timor is lucky it had American and Canadian diplomats on its side.

All of these claims seem to me to be at least irresponsibly exaggerated. I say this mainly because I know enough about the broadly accepted historical narrative that’s emerged about what happened in 1999 to see all the places where Gilmore is diverging from it. I distrust his account of how genocide was stopped in East Timor because I trust Geoffrey Robinson’s account in his book with the subtitle “How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor,” and in which paints a very different picture of what was going on in 1999. But most of all, I’m struck by the completely and incompatibly different version of the story that the same Canadian diplomat told in this interview, a short eleven months ago, when he wasn‘t prompted by Wikileaks to defend the noble calling of secret diplomacy.

As he tells it there, at the time he joined the foreign service and was posted to Indonesia, the Suharto regime that had, by then, been murderously repressing East Timor for almost 24 years “was falling apart”:

The government was collapsing, Suharto, the dictator, had resigned, and so I volunteered for it and was sent out to Jakarta. And because I was a low man in the embassy I was given the crap files and one of them was East Timor, because at that time it was a forgotten conflict, there was nobody on the ground, the UN wasn’t there. The only foreigners anywhere near it were nuns and the Red Cross.

Even this, by the way, is bizarre; in 1998 (when Suharto resigned), East Timor was a forgotten conflict? Huh? In 1991, journalists Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn witnessed the Santa Cruz massacre, in which the Indonesian military killed 270 people who had gathered for the funeral of a young man killed by the Indonesian military earlier. In 1996, Catholic Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, Timorese resistance spokesman (in exile in Australia), were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And while Indonesia was intransigent right up until the moment when it wasn’t, NGO’s, the Catholic church, and the international press were making East Timor into a big noisy deal throughout the entire 90‘s. It says a lot more about the diplomatic bubble he was encased in that he would consider it forgotten than about Eat Timor itself.

But anyway, here’s the part where the story he told a year ago starts to diverge from his story of last week:

I would go out every couple of months to silently bear witness, to talk to the nuns very furtively, to find out what the latest atrocity was, (or human rights abuse), to record what was actually happening on the ground and report that back up to Ottawa and our permanent mission in New York. It was very depressing and very upsetting, and a very futile exercise as a junior diplomat.

Catch all that? Reporting atrocities to Ottawa was a “futile exercise”; instead of giving his government “the ammunition it needed,” Gilmore’s point is that recording what was actually happening on the ground was  “to bear silent witness,” an experience of the uselessness of diplomacy which upset and depressed him. He’s telling a story of his disillusionment with the foreign service.

Then, once the uselessness of diplomacy has been thoroughly demonstrated:

What happened was that, bizarrely, one day, the new Indonesian president just announced he was going to hold a referendum for independence for the Timorese. And suddenly what became a lost cause became the cause celebre.

Diplomacy? “A lost cause.” The reasons the referendum came? Not a hard-bargained diplomatic concession in the face of Western pressure (as in his “international arm twisting led to a referendum”), but a bizarre and unexpected decision on the part of the new president of Indonesia which took everyone by surprise.

He continues:

The UN arrived and the donors arrived and the media arrived, and there was only about two or three of us at the time, Western diplomats: somebody for the US embassy, somebody from the Australian embassy and myself, who actually had been paying any attention, who knew any of the Timorese, who could speak the local language, who knew how to get a hold of the guerrillas. So we had very valuable skills for a short period of time and so it wasn’t long going from that to working for the UN because, frankly, there weren’t very many Timorese experts…I had a very strange job. It was a very unique UN mission because it was one of the first times the UN actually ran the country, as opposed to just trying to broker peace or maintain peace. The UN was running everything from the health department to creating the East Timorese defense force and I landed in an office called the National Security Advisory office, where myself and a colleague who I had actually known from grad school, found ourselves sitting across a desk from each other at a very young age, doing things like designing with the defense agency for what East Timor should look like, or with the intelligence agency for what East Timor’s supposed to look like, and actually trying to create these things on behalf of the Timorese.

I don’t want to dismiss what Scott Gilmore may or may not have done in 1999; unless his story is completely fabricated (and there’s no real reason to think it is), the man did dangerous work in a very good cause. So good on him for that. I am a bit skeptical of the way he makes himself and a handful of other diplomats the only (white) people “who actually had been paying any attention, who knew any of the Timorese, who could speak the local language, who knew how to get a hold of the guerrillas.” This seems deeply wrong to me; if you read accounts of the country in that period not written by former Canadian diplomats, it seems clear that there were a great many East Timorese people who had been paying attention, spoke their own language, and could get hold of the guerillas (especially when they were them), and that there wasn’t even a great shortage of great white fathers either. But let that go.

What really interests me in this old account is the way he nowhere emphasizes the role played by diplomats in secretly shuttling information back to their bosses in Ottawa and Washington. What interests me even more is that his story in the year-old interview is consistent with the one Robinson tells in his book (and in everything else I’ve read on the subject), in which the 1999 referendum not only comes out of nowhere, has very little to do with what was happening on the island, and took most Western observers and diplomats completely by surprise, but which also was followed up with a profoundly ineffective diplomatic effort to: convince the Indonesian military to run a really fair and peaceful election.

In other words, after 24 years of institutionalized repression, torture, murder, and more torture and murder, the US state department’s perspective on the situation was that it was up to the Indonesian military to keep the peace in East Timor. Apply enough diplomatic pressure on the fox and it will turn into a really good guard of the henhouse.

Surprisingly, that didn’t happen at all. Instead, in the lead up to the referendum in 1999, the Indonesian military secretly worked to form and organize local militias of Timorese who were loyal to Indonesia to use systematic violence and suppress the vote for independence. The violence wasn’t secret. The whole point of mass repression was that it had to be widely known, to everyone, or it wouldn‘t work. And this is where another genocide might have happened; had the UN not intervened when it eventually did, with peacekeeping troops, it certainly would have gotten very, very bad.

Here is what Robinson, who was in East Timor at the time, has to say about that moment:

…however obvious the need for peacekeepers seemed to those who had been in East Timor, the idea never got off the ground. The reason was simple: in the course of negotiations in April 1999 and the months leading up to the ballot, it was either ignored or actively opposed by elements within the UN Secretariat and key powers on the Security Council, most notably the United States. This is not to say that these powers remained silent in the face of mounting violence. There was plenty of  criticism, and even some veiled threats, for example, at a donors meeting for Indonesia in Paris in late July and again as voting day approached.  In the final weeks of August, for instance, President Clinton wrote to President Habibie warning that relations with the United States would b e seriously damaged if mass violence occurred during or after the ballot. But peacekeepers were never mentioned. Instead, the concerned states stuck steadfastly, one might even say pigheadedly, to the position that security was the responsibility of the Indonesian authorities.

Without UN peacekeepers, it is worth re-iterating, things would have gotten much, much worse. The most you can say for Western diplomatic efforts is that they eventually succeeded in convincing Indonesia to allow peacekeepers to enter the country. But there’s nothing else they could have accomplished, no matter how much “ammunition” Scott Gilmore provided them with. The Indonesian military were the bad guys in this situation and Indonesian President Habibie was the villain. The only thing standing between the people of East Timor and the paramilitary forces that had been killing and torturing them for decades was, eventually, the UN. And the main obstacle to UN action was the United States.

Which starts to bring us closer to the real issue here: the US not only didn’t care about humanitarian issues in East Timor, it was — as it had been for decades — actively working to train and support the Indonesian military during the 24-year period in which the Indonesian military was the primary instrument of genocidal repression in East Timor. This is not controversial or disputed. This is not a wild conspiracy theory. The turning point in the crisis — the APEC summit which Gilmore specifically mentions — was when Clinton suddenly announced (well after the referendum) that (A) if Indonesia didn’t suddenly get serious about not repressing the Timorese any more, UN intervention would be necessary, and (B) the US was suspending its military co-operation programs with the Indonesian military.

One thing to point out, then, is Scott Gilmore’s very unfortunate choice of metaphor in describing how secret diplomatic “cables gave my government the ammunition it needed to lean heavily on the Indonesian leadership at the UN and at summits like APEC.” In his testimony in front of Congress, for example, Allan Nairn spoke about being the last journalist in Dili, when the violence was at its height (during the APEC summit), and seeing actual American ammunition littering the ground. In other words, if those cables gave Scott Gilmore’s government the metaphorical ammunition to use against Indonesia, it seems worth pointing out that, at the exact same time, the Indonesian government was using actual ammunition against the people of East Timor, ammunition that was actually given to them by the US. Allan Nairn’s congressional testimony is worth quoting at some length on this point:

“A few weeks ago, as Dili was burning and as the UN had evacuated, as foreign journalist had left, I had the opportunity to be, I think, probably the last foreign journalist left on the streets of Dili. And I was walking around in the early mornings going from one abandoned house to another. You could hear the militias coming around the corners with their chopper motorcycles. They would fire into the air and honk their horns as they were about to sack and burn another house.

And you also found littering the streets, hundreds upon hundreds of shell casings. They came from two places, one from Pindad [PT Pindad: Pusat Industrial AD. Army Industries Center], the Indonesian military industries, which have joint ventures with a whole list of U.S. companies. And the other from Olin Winchester of East Alton, Illinois. These cartridges had been recently shipped in to Battalion 7444, one of the territorial battalions in Timor, and then issued to the militiamen. As you can see from these photos, they come in the new white Olin Winchester boxes, twenty cartridges to a box. These were amongst the bullets that they were using to terrorize Dili.”

US military support for Indonesia goes a lot deeper than this, of course,[1] and I will continue in a moment. But we first need to just linger a moment on the fact that exactly the kinds of atrocities which Scott Gilmore talks about, the atrocities which he needs diplomatic cables so he can secretly document “what the Indonesian military was doing,” are atrocities being done with US military hardware and by militiamen directly trained by the Indonesian military, which was directly trained by the American military. Which side of the story do we chooses to emphasize?

Allan Nairn’s point, in front of Congress, was that the US’s support of Indonesia is the central problem. Having been actually present during the 1991 massacre in Dili (many years before Scott Gilmore would accidentally go to East Timor), Nairn takes a big picture approach to the conflict, and he began his testimony by situating American support for Indonesia in 1999 in the context of US support for Indonesia over the entire 24 years of its occupation of East Timor:

“Back in December 1975, when the Indonesian military began consulting with Washington about a possible invasion, they promised they could crush Timor within two weeks. General Ali Murtropo came to the White House and met with General Brent Scowcroft. President Ford and Henry Kissinger went to Jakarta and sat down with Suharto. And then, sixteen hours later, the invasion was underway. The paratroopers dropped from US C-130’s. They used new US machine guns to shoot the Timorese into the sea.

In 1990, when I first went to Timor, the intelligence chief Colonel Gatot Purwanto confirmed that by that time their operation had killed a third of the original population.

On November 12, 1991, when the troops marched on the Santa Cruz cemetery, they carried U.S. M-16s. They didn’t bother with warning shots. Amy Goodman and I stood between them futilely hoping to stop them from opening fire. But they opened fire systematically and they kept on shooting because, as the national commander, General Soestrisno, explained: “These Timorese are disrupters; such people must be shot.”…

At no time during these years of slaughter did the US government executive branch ever decide that the time had come to stop supporting the perpetrators. President Carter and Richard Holbrooke sent in OV-10 Broncos and helicopters. Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton sent in weapons, multilateral financing, and sniper trainers…

In recent weeks, commentators have criticized the United States for failure to intervene, for not sending in foreign troops fast enough to stop the Indonesian army’s final burst of Timor terror.

But Mr. Chairman, I want to make the point today that intervention is not the issue. The Clinton doctrine and the questions flowing from it do not apply in Timor or Indonesia because the killing is being perpetrated with the active assistance of the United States. The United States is not an observer here; it is not agonizing on the sidelines. It has instead been the principle patron of the Indonesian armed forces. The issue is not whether we should step in and play policeman to the world, but whether we should continue to arm, train, and finance the world’s worst criminals.”

To return to Scott Gilmore, I have no particular reason to think that he, personally, did anything but honorable and commendable work in East Timor, and every reason to believe that in the moment when it was possible for him to do some good on one of the dark places of the earth, he did his best. That’s not what I’m arguing; foreign service diplomats are not the bad guys here. But the attempt to make them into the good guys is somewhere between ignorant and disingenuous; you cannot be the voice of a government that kills people and pretend that your efforts to stop them from being killed don’t have to be stacked against your governments efforts to help kill them. Without active Western military and diplomatic support for the Suharto regime — starting in 1965, when the real atrocity was committed (over a million communists and suspected communists killed), and continuing past 1999 — the genocide in East Timor could never have happened; in 1975, it was diplomatic pressure from the US, Australia, and the UK that stifled any outcry in the UN, and that was the pattern for the entire history of the “conflict.” Again, this isn’t even secret; in his memoirs, our ambassador to the UN during the initial 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, notoriously described what he did in the UN at that time:

“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 measures it undertook. This task was given to me and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.” (245-7)

In other words, if East Timor “was a forgotten conflict” when Scott Gilmore got there, and if “the UN wasn’t there,” it was because the West (starting with but not limited to the US) had worked hard to make sure that this was so. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, stopping “dominoes” in Asia was vastly more important to the “free world” than anything so piddling as hundreds of thousands of people in East Timor. If you agree with that calculus, fine. But you can’t pretend that human rights ever amounted to anything even close to the importance that the US placed on “strategic considerations,” like maintaining good relations with Jakarta. As Daniel Southerland put it in 1980, “in deferring to Indonesia on the issue, the Carter administration, like the Ford administration before it, appears to have placed big-power concerns ahead of human rights.”[2]

This is why we have to look at what our military does and what our diplomats do in the same context. They are only two different faces of the same state, two different functions and ways of doing things, but ultimately in service of the same goals. We have to scrutinize our diplomats with precisely the same rigor with which we need to oversee our military. And in that sense, it’s worth noting that one of the ways Allan Nairn was able to document American-Indonesian cooperation in the events leading up to 1999 was a leaked diplomatic cable. Here is how he closed his testimony to Congress:

One point I want to make about the constant Pentagon argument. The argument for training is: Well, when you train officers it gives you access to them. It teaches them good values and so on. Those arguments are summarized in this cable. This is a cable from Ambassador Roy to CINCPAC [commander in chief, Pacific].

He makes all the arguments about how when we train officers, they get good values. They rise in the ranks. And then to clinch the argument, it cites examples of the best and brightest of the Indonesian officers who’ve been trained by the U.S.

These are the examples they cited. General Feisal Tanjung, who became the commander in chief of the Indonesian armed forces, one of the most notorious, hardline, repressive officers; [Lieutenant] General Hendropriyono, one of the legendary authors of repression in Indonesia, who was involved in Aceh. He’s the man who commanded Operation Cleanup in Jakarta prior to the ’94 APEC summit. This was the operation in which they swept through the streets, picked up street vendors, petty criminals, prostitutes; executed many of them, according to human rights grups. Major General Sihombing, a longtime Intel man who became deputy chief of the secret police. [Major General] Agus [Wirahadikusumah] who has a less egregious human rights record than the others. His main distinction is he’s bought a lot of U.S. weapons for the Indonesian military.

And then their final example of the best and the brightest was General Prabowo, the most notorious of all the Indonesian officers; also one of the most extensively US- trained officers, famous for his participation in torture in Timor, West Papua, Aceh; for the kidnappings in Aceh.

Again, I don’t want to pretend that Western diplomacy never did any good. At APEC, in 1999, Clinton signaled that the US was now ready to allow the UN intervention into East Timor that would, eventually, stop the militia violence and lead to a shaky peace. But it wasn’t human rights abuses that led him to do it, nor was there any doubt, at that point, that the Indonesian military was behind the atrocities that were happening. The reason Allan Nairn was the last journalist in Dili was that all the others had been driven out by the violence, and the reason we knew the Indonesian military was behind it was that we were training and advising the people who did it.

But what happened in East Timor was a broad change in strategic priorities; human rights became relevant only once Indonesia was no longer so important as an ally, and once Suharto was no longer “our kind of guy,” as Clinton notoriously once called him. Richard Falk describes what happened this way:

“…the basic change in East Timor’s prospects resulted from an overall transformation of the geopolitical climate, as well as from the play of internal forces within Indonesia. In the wake of the end of the Cold War, concerns about global strategic alignment were considerably weakened…Such an altered context was then deeply influenced by Indonesia’s fall from International Monetary Fund (IMF) grace in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis. Instead of Indonesia being seen as the darling of the second generation of Asian emerging markets, it was now being castigated as the kingpin of “crony capitalism,” and its once admired and pampered leader, Suharto, was condemned as an Asian autocrat whose time of useful service to Indonesia had long passed.”

Suharto resigned, as Falk tells it, because we didn’t need him any more, and because he had become an embarrassment. He became the fall guy, and his promoted vice president declared a referendum on independence in East Timor (A) to clean up the image problem that Indonesia had because of it, and (B) because he thought that the military could swing the election the way they wanted it to go. That it didn’t work out that way doesn’t contradict the basic bad faith of the plan from the start.

The reason it didn’t work out, the reason the UN intervened when we did, is complicated. But note how secret diplomatic cables don’t in any way play into Geoffrey Robinson’s account:

A careful reconstruction of the decisions and events of mid-September 1999, against the background of this literature, suggests that the intervention was the result of an unusual conjuncture of historical trends and events that distinguished that moment decisively from the situation in the late 1970’s. These included: the presence of a good many foreign observers and journalists in the midst of the post-ballot violence; the credibility and strength of the international NGO and church networks that exerted influence on their governments, and mobilized popular demonstrations around the world, most notably in Canberra and Lisbon; the impact of myriad acts of conscience and extraordinary courage by East Timorese; a temporary shift in prevailing international norms and legal regimes that strongly favored humanitarian intervention in cases where national governments commit crimes against their own populations; the presence in a position of power of a strong proponent of humanitarian intervention in such circumstances — UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; and the recent memory of egregious UN failures to protect civilians from mass killings in comparable situations, notably in Rwanda and Srebrenica.

What I am suggesting, then, is that the decision to intervene militarily in East Timor in mid-September 1999 stemmed from an unusual, but, temporary, confluence of historical trends and political pressures that briefly altered the calculus by which key states assessed their national interest, making inaction more costly than humanitarian intervention. Tat view accords well with Samantha Power’s argument [in “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide] about the reasons for US inaction in the face of genocide in the twentieth century. US failures, she argues, can be traced to the fact that there have been no significant domestic political costs to such inaction.

It is impossible to read Robinson’s book — or pretty much everything else I’ve read on the subject — and not come away with a very different impression of the role played by Western diplomats in East Timor than the one described by Scott Gilmore in his recent column. As agents of their states, they did what their states wanted them to do. And when someone like Gilmore was in East Timor at a time when what was wanted was to “bear silent witness,” well, that’s pretty much all someone like him is going to be able to do. States only care about human rights when  they have some reason to care. Most of the time they don’t.

On the other hand, Robinson and Samantha Power emphasize that what makes states suddenly break with history and care about, say, a little thing like genocide, is when a lot of people start demanding that they care. If inaction has political cost, states will act. And if there’s one thing that the secrecy of diplomatic cables will not accomplish, it’s making citizens angry about inaction, or about actions done in their name.

East Timor is a special case; as Robinson specifically notes, the UN was able to do the right thing in that moment because a whole bunch of factors were just right: the cold war was over, Indonesia was disgraced, the war on terror had not yet begun, and shameful memories of non-intervention in Rwanda and Bosnia still stung in the collective memory. And this confluence of unusual factors brought about a unique state of affairs, where suddenly a jaded diplomat, a person who was accustomed to being able to do nothing about the horrors he was documenting to apathetic or ineffective officials in Ottawa, was able to be on the right side by working for the UN. Popular pressure from citizens who read Allan Nairn’s journalism, for example, demanded action; Kofi Annan worked very hard to create a coalition of forces to stop the violence; and the US, for a time, fell into line.

Would we do so now? Doubt it. Indonesia is a massive nation full of Muslims, in case you haven’t heard, and friendly dictators who fight terrorism on our behalf are our favorite kind of ally. If a few eggs get broken, etc. And the main thing that the Wikileaks cables have revealed — just like the cable that Nairn read in front of congress in 1999 — is confirmation of exactly these sorts of complicities. We now have confirmation that we were behind the humanitarian clusterfuck that Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia has turned out to be, for instance, an invasion that was necessary because of all those scary Muslims in Somalia, and possible because of our close relationship with Ethiopia. Just like we already knew that our military was behind Indonesia’s military which was behind the militia violence in Timor, we already “knew,” in a certain sense, that the US gave Ethiopia the green light to invade. They wouldn’t have done so without our approval any more than Indonesia would have invaded in 1975 without it. But Wikileaks fills in some of the gaps. Now we have proof.

I don’t know how to highly to value that proof; I’m not sure whether Wikileaks just adds to a store of knowledge that we already have or if it represents something new. But the idea that it’s a bad thing to know more about the how the governments that act in our names actually behave is laughable, and the idea that impeding their ability to act secretly prevents them from advancing the cause of justice and human rights, it seems to me, is utterly without merit. There may be a human rights argument against what Wikileaks does; it may be that they’ve been sloppy in the data they’ve released. But given how many times I’ve seen that charge laid at their feet, and how completely unsupported by any credible evidence it has been, without exception, I’m not willing to give people like Gilmore the benefit of the doubt. If anyone has actual examples of a time when government secrecy was used for something other than exerting force in support of self-interest, I’d like to hear it. But until then, I’m going to continue to assume, as usual, that the only check on the amorality of the state is a moral citizenry. And the only way that citizens can act as a check on the state’s amorality is when they know what their government is doing. Hiding cables from the public does the opposite of accomplishing that.


[1] As Nairn points out “The units on the ground that were specifically running the militia operation included some of those most intensely trained by the United States,” and he names a series of Indonesian military individuals and units coordinating the militia operation in Timor who were “graduates of US IMET and intelligence training.”

[2] CSM, “US Role in Plight of Timor: An Issue That Won’t Go Away,” March 6, 1980.  I’m not sure “deferring” is the right word, but let it pass.