East Timor, 1999 — Richard Weitz

East Timor

After the voters of East Timor overwhelmingly voted to separate from Indonesia in a referendum on August 30, 1999, anti-independence militias linked to the Indonesian government launched a campaign of terror. Initially, U.S. officials looked to Indonesian authorities to halt the violence, but it soon became clear that the Indonesian government could or would not do so. Although the Australian and American governments both endorsed deploying an international peacekeeping force to restore order in the territory, the allies were initially unable to agree on an acceptable bilateral division of labor. In the end, the U.S. government contributed limited but important transportation, intelligence, communications, and logistics assistance as well as a modest number of American military personnel to the peacekeeping force, the International Force, East Timor (INTERFET). This contingent deployed in late September and rapidly restored peace to the territory.

The case of East Timor is an example of successful international peacekeeping achieved with a minimal commitment of U.S. assets. The American government’s response to the events in East Timor also serves as a useful study of Washington’s difficulties in developing coherent strategies in situations where U.S. national security interests are considered minimal.

Washington first encountered difficulties developing a cohesive strategy due to a lack of attention to the issue by senior U.S. leaders, which made it difficult to unify the agency response. As a result, the Australians received discordant messages from their American interlocutors. After the Australians made clear their dissatisfaction with the lack of clear U.S. support regarding an issue that they perceived as of vital interest for their country, President Clinton and his key advisers established a clear strategy—combining pressure on Indonesia with support for Australia—and effectively mobilized the bureaucracy behind it.

During the pre-crisis period, U.S. government agencies pursued disparate agendas based on their varying core missions and areas of focus. The State Department was preoccupied with ensuring Indonesia’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy, the Department of the Treasury attempted to promote economic reforms in the country and manage the concurrent Asian financial crisis, while the Defense Department continued focus on improving relations with the Indonesian military. After the President and other senior U.S. leaders developed a coherent strategy, however, the diplomatic, military and economic bureaucracies proved effective at implementing it. In particular, the agencies pursued a successful integrated effort to compel a reluctant Indonesian government to permit the deployment of INTERFET on its territory and provided sufficient, though limited, assistance to the Australian-led military intervention.

U.S. government decision-making structures generally functioned efficiently only after senior leaders became engaged and took charge of the bureaucracy by empowering their key subordinates. Limitations on resources and capabilities, and a preoccupation with crises elsewhere (especially Kosovo), explain the initial U.S. hesitancy to intervene in the East Timor crisis. In this case, neither U.S. civilian nor U.S. military agencies suffered from inadequate resources, authorities, and operational capabilities, primarily because Australia took charge of the military response and the United Nations as well as other countries made important contributions. This multidimensional effort meant that Washington had to provide only modest support. Although members of Congress initially resisted allocating money and troops to quell violence in East Timor given its seemingly peripheral concern to core U.S. security interests, congressional leaders, like their executive branch colleagues, eventually rallied behind the intervention after Australian officials had defined the issue as a decisive test of the U.S.-Australian security alliance.

Washington’s original reluctance to commit heavily to a military intervention in East Timor resulted in a short-term deterioration in U.S.-Australian relations and perhaps led to a greater level of post-referendum violence than might otherwise have occurred. Despite initial difficulties, the U.S. strategy regarding the East Timor crisis was largely successful. U.S. government agencies effectively mobilized diplomatic and economic pressure against the Indonesian government and subsequently provided vital support for Australia’s lead role in INTERFET. These policies ended the civil strife in East Timor, facilitated the territory’s transition to independence, and ultimately strengthened U.S.-Australian ties.

Four key conclusions emerge from the analysis of U.S. policy making toward the East Timor crisis. First, U.S. government agencies initially encountered difficulties developing a coherent preventive strategy, which caused needless confusion in Australia. Second, implementation proceeded smoothly after President Clinton and other senior U.S. government officials decided on an integrated strategy and empowered subordinates to carry it out. Third, both the early weaknesses and the ultimate strengths that characterized the U.S. response resulted primarily from the fact that the American interests and resources engaged in East Timor proved to be modest. Finally, U.S. credibility and American-Australian security relations experienced short-term deteriorations but sustained no significant lasting damage.