“Promising too much can be as cruel as caring too little” was the truly mind-boggling statemen of U.S. President Bill Clinton before the United Nations Sept. 21. Now he tells us. So much for the “Clinton Doctrine” of humanitarian intervention. Yet as international peacekeepers pour into a devastated East Timor to revive a ghost town, some nagging, impolite questions about the fiasco and its wider meaning can’t be avoided.

It was hardly a secret that the Indonesian military was uncomfortable with a referendum on independence; that local militias were aided and abetted by Indonesian local military forces; or that there was a reasonable probability of post-election violence by the militias if the referendum resulted in a pro-independence verdict.

Of course Jakarta bears a heavy responsibility for the tragedy that has befallen the enclave of some 800,000 people, roughly a quarter of whom have now been “escorted” out of the territory. But there is ample blame to go around. Indonesian President B.J. Habibie made an impulsive decision for politically expedient reasons last January to allow the referendum during an unsettled transition period. Why move on such a controversial issue with Indonesia’s first democratic elections in nearly four decades approaching in May, and when a new president will be chosen and a new government assembled in November? In any case, he is likely to pay a heavy political price.

The U.N. also has some difficult questions to answer. In its haste to seize the opportunity and finally resolve the Timor question, the U.N. forged ahead, it is now evident, without thinking things through, and despite ample early warning signs. After 24 years of Indonesian occupation, why the rush to hold the vote at the end of August? Why not wait until after November, when East Timorese would know what government in Jakarta they might or might not want to be associated with?

Still more inexcusable is the lack of adequate plans on managing the period between the referendum and the moment in November when the new Indonesian Parliament votes to ratify its results. How could the U.N. ask the courageous East Timorese — who braved life-threatening intimidation — to cast their votes and trust their safety afterward to the world body? (Just how many divisions did the U.N. think it had in Dili?)

During the preparatory period prior to the election, it was painfully obvious that the militias were engaging in systematic violence and terror tactics with the active cooperation of local military authorities. It is remarkable that the referendum went as well as it did, with a massive turnout, 78.5 percent of which opted for independence. But in light of the pre-election obstruction, why did the U.N. not demand either new troops from Jakarta, with a renewed commitment to ensure order, or an international peacekeeping force to oversee the transition?

The Clinton administration was right to demand an international peacekeeping force, but why only after the horrors were shown on CNN and not before? Whatever happened to “preventive diplomacy,” the buzzword that those in the post-Cold War cottage industry of “conflict resolution” put so much stock in? One quiet success was the intense behind-the-scenes effort led by Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth to help facilitate Indonesia’s May elections. But given the leverage afforded by a $43 billion IMF bailout, World Bank loans and Japanese aid, was it not possible during Roth’s 13 trips to Indonesia during the past two years to extract a firm guarantee that such an organized rampage would not occur in East Timor?

And no inquiry would be complete without asking: Where is that profile in courage, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations? Good at golf and the annual gabfest known as the ASEAN Regional Forum in which the United States and other Pacific Rim nations dutifully participate, ASEAN clearly doesn’t do much real work. The situation would look rather different now if the U.S., Japan and Australia had spent the past five years (since ARF’s inception) helping put together an ASEAN peacekeeping force instead of the busywork and schmoozing that has kept its diplomats employed. To their credit, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia appear willing individually to be a modest part of an Australian-led peacekeeping and/or transition mission that eventually may be deployed to safeguard what is left of East Timor.

What are we to make of all this? One lesson that should have been evident from the Balkans experience, as well as East Timor, is that incrementalism tends to make things worse. If one intervenes, it should be with a clear outcome in mind, factoring in worst-case possibilities and with the commitment to see it through. The unpreparedness of the U.N. enterprise in East Timor is truly chilling. Another lesson in light of all the proclamations of new universal principles is that statesman are well advised to save their exalted doctrines for their memoirs.

It also appears that the “international community” got more than it bargained for. Many question whether East Timor will be viable as an independent state — unless oil and gas in the Timor Gap are more substantial than so far indicated. If the U.N. starts down the path of intervention on humanitarian grounds, it must be prepared to manage the territory as a protectorate. Moreover, it would make eminent sense to either equip a U.N. standing force — which appears impractical — or for the U.S., Europe and Japan to take the lead in aiding regional institutions such as ASEAN, the Organization of African Unity, the Arab League and others to train and prepare quick-response peacekeeping forces so that responsibility for local matters can be managed by those closer to the problem and with a larger direct interest in stabilizing it.

The horrible truth is that even though local ethno-religious and nationalist conflict is becoming a prominent feature of the New World Disorder, each case has its own dynamic, requiring tailor-made responses. Closing the gap between global concern over televised crises and brutality and the capacity to respond to them remains one of the great challenges of our times.

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