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Is the U.S. Mining the Ground for the UN Troops in East Timor?



Sept. 15, 1999

LONDON- In his urgent action message received yesterday by all his friends (and unsolicited recipients like myself) Professor Noam Chomsky wraps up the whole East Timor imbroglio as a dastardly American responsibility, replete with ulterior, dark, purposes that suggest the U.S. pursues even its most tangential interests with a total disregard for scruple. It simply wants to rule the world.*

While it is probably true that Washington ventures on a dangerous and sometimes counterproductive ego trip every time it involves itself in foreign affairs there is yet- even after Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Central America, Afghanistan, Iraq, ex-Yugoslavia and now East Timor - no hard evidence that there is some malign grand design. Perhaps if there was it might be easier to deal with.

No, the trouble with America is more complicated- it is its sense of self-evident (to itself) moral purpose, delivered into the foreign field- on both the military and civilian front- by a bureaucracy that has little native subtlety and that has to answer to a Congress with too many members who pride themselves on not even possessing a passport. (And that is probably the least of their introverted failings.)

Until the end of the Cold War the U.S. usually stayed out of UN peacekeeping operations, limiting itself to financial, logistical, transportation and communications help. This worked well, giving no argument to those in Moscow who wanted to match everything the U.S. did, which would have been fatal in such an exercise. But the Cold War over, the U.S. lost its reticence and waded in, first in Somalia and later in Haiti. Now there is talk of some American soldiers, albeit limited numbers, being deployed on the ground in East Timor. And "on the last day of the New Zealand summit President Bill Clinton called for joint exercises between US forces and those of other nations who plan to participate in the East Timor peacekeeping force as a way of preparing for the mission", reported the Washington Post today. Is this a stalking horse for direct American involvement? Perhaps an unwilling Congress will limit the U.S. contribution to transport, logistics and so on, but it seems the White House, left to its own devices, would push for more than this. It could be dangerously counterproductive if not thwarted. Mr Clinton has not spent his finest hours on UN affairs.

The Clinton Administration took office committed to reversing the Republican policy of holding the UN at arms length. Candidate Bill Clinton even called for the establishment of a small, standing UN "rapid-deployment force that could be sent anywhere where trouble loomed at a few hours notice". Any American troops, whether in this force or part of more regular peacekeeping forces, like every other contingent, would serve under UN commanders, most of whom would be of foreign nationality. All this high thinking got buried in the sands of Somalia.

The occasion was a great firefight between American soldiers and the forces of a local Somali warlord in 1993. 18 American rangers were killed, provoking a great outcry in the U.S., pushing Clinton on the defensive, first to say that he was pulling U.S. troops out of the UN peacekeeping operation and, second, to shift the blame by asserting that the lives of American soldiers were lost because of flaws in the UN command.

The truth was very different. Only the 2,700 strong logistics component of the UN forces were truly under UN operational control. Although the UN commander was a Turk, military operations were under direct U.S. command- a situation that had never existed with any previous UN operation. The UN Secretary General's special representative in Somalia was an American Admiral, Jonathan Howe, assisted by 28 American officers.

The decision to initiate the military operation that led to the firefight was made by the Special Operations Command in Florida, which ordered units of the Quick Reaction Force to move against the suspected stronghold of the country's most notorious warlord.

The subsequent American decision to withdraw had a richochet affect on other contingents. Soon after, the French, Belgian, Saudi Arabian and German forces pulled out as they were reliant on American logistical support. Bravely, the Indians, Indonesians, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Canadians and Zimbabwians stayed on for a while longer, but they too found without American help and political support that they were isolated.

Somalia killed all the high hopes that were widespread at the Cold War's end for a new and more vigorous life for UN peacekeeping. To his credit, Mr Clinton last year publically apologised for the U.S. sabotaging a strong deployment of UN peacekeepers at the time of the mass genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda five years ago. But even as recently as July, following the signing of the Congo peace agreement, when the agreed deal specifically called for policing by the UN, Washington - and the other big powers - failed to follow through on their initial promises to field a UN force.

At one level, with the East Timor crisis, the world has to welcome the U.S.'s return to an interest in UN peacekeeping. But at another we should ask, as has Mats Berdal in the quarterly, Survival, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, whether "U.S. armed forces may not, at present, be temperamentally and culturally attuned to the requirements of low-level miltary operations of the kind required in Somalia [and East Timor]?"

U.S. tactics, he argues, inevitably have been shaped by Vietnam and by "a deeply entrenched belief in the efficacy of technology and firepower as a means of minimizing one's own casualties."

Such tactics in Somalia were inappropriate, even counterproductive. A "clean surgical attack" in Admiral Howe's description, forfeited local support by killing large numbers of Somalis, including important religious and clan leaders. The U.S. command, Mr Berdal concluded, seemed to have no understanding of the UN's long-standing distinction between peacekeeping andenforcement.

In East Timor, the UN must not allow the Americans to repeat their mistakes. U.S. transportation, logistical and communication prowess will be invaluable, but not troops on the ground nor the use of airpower. And there cannot be two commands, only one. The East Timor peacekeeping exercise will be complicated enough to make go round without Washington breaking spokes in the wheel.

Professor Chomsky over-simplifies. The Americans are not trying to shoot their way round the world; they just find it difficult not to shoot themselves in the foot.


* The mentioned article by Chomsky can be found on TFF's site:


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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