The Bad Sleep Well: Richard Holbrooke’s Deathbed

by zunguzungu

Richard Holbrooke is dead. At first his last words were reported to have been a volte-face on his long held position that victory was on the march in Afghanistan or something, an “end this war” cri-de-coeur which was interpreted by many of the sort of people I twitter around with as a kind of last confession that his life as a war-enabling diplomat had been misspent. Me too: my first reaction was to wonder whether he had ever said anything so brave when he still had his vocation and reputation as a respected, establishment diplomat to protect. And then it was reported that, in fact, it had been a mistake, that he had just been joshing with his surgeon.

Whatever. Let him rest in peace and be forgotten. The sooner we put his life as the functionary of an amoral state power behind us, the sooner we can bury him and what he represents, the sooner we can close the door on a past that should never have happened the way it did. Let’s instead look forward, however implausibly, to a future that won’t repeat it. Let’s forgive him for a life spent “placing big-power concerns ahead of human rights,” as Daniel Southerland put it, in one of the East Timor books I still have sitting in front of my computer from writing this post. If you flip through the indexes of all of them for his name, you find nothing but official indifference to the suffering of the powerless alongside a deep and consistent concern for whatever it is that would best enable the United States to continue its hegemony over the world. It’s hard to forget that, but let’s try to forgive and move on. There were times when he — like the United States — was on the right side of a human rights issue, and there are times when they actions he took on behalf of the powerful were in alignment with the well-being of the powerless. But correlation is not causation: when it suits the imperial hegemon to give a shit about death and suffering, they do so because it suits them to do so. And Richard Holbrooke was its face when it did so. Lets remember that and then move on.

In 1997, when Holbrooke received an honorary degree at Brown University, Allan Nairn asked him these questions:

You were the Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration at the height of the genocide in Timor, the years of ’76, ’77, ’78, ’79, when the killing rose to a peak. And you were the Carter administration’s point man on Timor policy. You handled the testimony before Congress and so on. And it was under your watch that the US sent in the OV-10 Bronco planes, the low-flying planes, which were used to bomb and strafe the Timorese out of the hills. Testimony from Catholic Church sources, reports from Amnesty International and others indicated that hundreds of thousands of East Timorese were killed during this period. And during this period, not only was the US sending in these weapons, which were used to kill the Timorese, but it was also blocking the UN Security Council from taking enforcement action on the two resolutions, which called on Indonesia to withdraw its troops without delay. We know this because Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former US ambassador to the UN, wrote about it in his memoirs. That was the policy that started under Ford and Kissinger, OK, and you continued that policy.

So I have two questions. The first is, would you be willing to facilitate the full declassification of documents regarding what the Carter administration, your administration, did in East Timor by granting a waiver under the Privacy Act? And secondly, would you favor the convening for the case of East Timor an international war crimes tribunal along the lines of what has been done in Bosnia and Rwanda, along the lines of what President Bush called for in the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq? And would you be willing to abide by his verdict in regard to your own conduct?

Holbrooke’s response was that its complicated, you know? Serious people doing serious things and there isn’t time to go into it all:

Holbrooke: You know, first of all, we’re not going to have time to deconstruct your question and take it on point by point here. We’ve got other questions, and we need to get to them. But let me say very clearly, first of all, I don’t accept every statement you have just made as fact. Far from it. Moynihan, for example, was not the ambassador during the Carter administration; he was the ambassador during the previous administration—

Nairn: He started it under Ford, and you continued that policy.

Holbrooke: Let’s not—I don’t think we’re going to have time to deconstruct this here. I do not accept most of your statements. However, in regard to the last questions, of course I favor declassification. I have no—I have nothing to hide about my own role. If I made a mistake or two along the way, I’ll confront it when that goes—when that comes up. No one is error-free here. But just for the purpose of everyone else in the room, this is not an accurate description of the administration’s policy or my own role in it. As I said in my opening remarks, Indonesia was an important country and remains an important country. And the solution to the problem, as I said to an earlier question, does not, in my view, involve a complete arms cut-off. You’re welcome to disagree. But I am interested in consequences of policy. I’m interested in solving the problem and not—

Nairn: The consequences in this case were genocide, a third of the Timorese population killed.

Holbrooke: If you want to accuse me of genocide, you’re welcome to do so. And if—as far as extending the war crimes tribunal to Timor or, for that matter, Cambodia, where it’s incomprehensibly not of a mandate, I’m all for it. In fact, I have recently written a letter to the Holocaust Commission at the museum, recommending that they take this issue on, precisely because it’s incomprehensible to me why various people who were equally as murderous as of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic have never been investigated. But I tell you here for the benefit of everyone else that the Timor issue is not as simple as described just now. It just isn’t. This is not what happened, and I don’t think anyone who knows Jimmy Carter or what he stands for would agree that this was a deliberate policy of giving low-flying airplanes or helicopters to the Indonesians so that they could go out and kill people in the hills.

In other words, (a) You are wrong and this is not what happened, because (b) It’s complicated, and also Jimmy Carter is a good man who would never have done such as deliberately help an ally kill people. The fact that Nairn is talking about passivity in the face of genocide — inaction, not action — goes unaddressed, because, after all, there is no cogent response to the basic truth of the charge. When our ally was committing genocide, Holbrook spoke for Carter in not saying a word.

As Brad Simpson (Director of the “Indonesia and East Timor Documentation Project” at George Washington University and Assistant Professor of US History and Foreign Relations at the University of Maryland) commented

Richard Holbrooke is simply lying through his teeth. The policy of the Carter administration was to accept Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and in fact to characterize the resistance of the Timorese as an assault on Indonesian sovereignty. And it was Holbrooke and Zbigniew Brzezinski, both now [in 1997] leading lights in the Democratic Party, who played point in trying to frustrate the efforts of congressional human rights activists to try and condition or stop US military assistance to Indonesia and in fact accelerated the flow of weapons to Indonesia at the height of the genocide.

We can fast-forward to the Clinton administration, during which time congressional and grassroots human rights activists actually began to succeed in limiting the flow of weapons and training to the Indonesian armed forces. And the documentary record here again is crystal clear. The Clinton administration at every turn tried to block the efforts of congressional and grassroots human rights activists, arguing all along that US military assistance would imbibe the Indonesian armed forces with democratic values, with a respect for human rights. We know, of course, from the experience of yourself and countless others that these claims were farcical and that US military training and that the extension of more than 250 separate commercial weapons sales to the Indonesian armed forces through the 1990s in fact bolstered the strength and bolstered the repressive capacity of the very units, including the feared Kopassus special forces units, which were carrying out the worst atrocities, the worst assassinations, disappearances, torture not just in East Timor but elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago.

Requiescat in pace. Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru.