WASHINGTON — When is military intervention justified? What is a just war? Are some wars mere whims? Americans have been debating these questions recently as the crisis in East Timor escalated.

John Dori, research associate in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation here, says Washington faces a difficult task. “While helping to end the suffering in East Timor and expressing its displeasure with Jakarta’s handling of the situation there, it also must work to prevent the violence from spilling over into the rest of Indonesia.”

Before he went to Auckland and the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, U.S. President Bill Clinton was said to be mulling a cutoff of International Monetary Fund and other aid to Indonesia. But extending aid and then cutting it off provides complicated advantages and disadvantages for both the donor and the recipient. There can be leverage in both directions. The Indonesian military knows this very well.

Ending financial aid to Indonesia would probably produce the kind of downward economic plunge that the United States wants to avoid.

“The U.S. would hate to carry out that threat because you would see chaos,” Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times recently.

Other words in the debate on intervention come from Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican senator from Texas and a member of the U.S. Senate defense appropriations subcommittee.

“The truth is that a superpower is more credible and effective when it maintains a measured distance from all regional conflicts — not possible when our well-trained military troops are used as global care givers,” she said.

Hutchison added, “There may be no better example than Indonesia of the differences between what we can offer as a superpower and what we should offer in a supporting role for our regional allies.”

More than one diplomat has remarked that having Australia lead the peacekeeping forces in East Timor, with U.S. backing, smacks of racism — light skins vs. dark skins. The Indonesian and Australian militaries are known for their mutual animosity and rivalry.

An Indian diplomat said “U.S. involvement gives Washington one more opportunity to push Asians around.”

The U.S. must prepare itself much better to react to Asian crises. The State Department’s Eurocentric policies are as outdated as the buggy whip.

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