East Timor: Kosovo version 2.0?

As the spotlight of international media has turned to East Timor for its daily ration of death and destruction, we notice a shift in policy from the world’s beacons of new humanism. For some reason, nobody is quite so eager anymore to send a battle fleet or two to start a war for principle’s sake.

The story, though, is very similar to many others in the past few years. A big country (Indonesia, Iraq, Serbia) sends troops into a small neighboring country, relatively recently independent or in the process of separation (East Timor, Kuwait, Kosovo). The “international community” expresses moral outrage and sends its blood-starved “peacekeeping forces” to bring order to the region (preferably by bombing the heck out of everybody until they stop fighting long enough to realize who the real enemy is). Why are we holding back in East Timor? Why isn’t the ground afire? Why isn’t our hi-tech army laying waste to Indonesia, destroying Chinese embassies in Jakarta, and lobbing a few missiles into Malaysia just for kicks?

Well from a practical point of view our restraint is understandable. East Timor barely shows up on a world map. 850,000 Catholics in a forgotten jungle are not exactly numero uno on our strategic radar map. Then again, neither was Kosovo, despite the amount of ink that was spilled on the subject.

More to the point, Indonesia’s army is the world’s fourth largest, supplied with the finest weaponry money can buy in Europe and the United States. To defend the interests of 800,000 over those of 200 million with the risk of enormous casualties seems a little ridiculous. To cut economic ties with a country that provides extremely cheap labor to some of our leading manufacturers wouldn’t be too bright either. We love the East Timorese but probably not enough to pay $200 for a pair of Nikes.

From a moral point of view, which is how America’s foreign policy seems to be conducted these days, there is more reason to intervene than there was in Kosovo. Serbia was fighting a war with a terrorist group inside its territory when we decided to take the side of the terrorists in the name of self-determination and human rights. Note that according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees only started spilling out of Kosovo three days after the NATO bombings started (March 27). Moreover, the reports of human rights violations all increased markedly after the beginning of NATO air strikes.

East Timor, on the other hand, as of two weeks ago is no longer part of Indonesia. The Indonesian militias and army corps wreaking havoc throughout the country are, in effect, an invading force. They are committing an unambiguous breach of sovereignty. So let’s recapitulate: one quarter of its population has already been displaced, its capital has been emptied, human violations have been documented on TV and the U.N. peacekeeping force is only “preparing for an incursion into East Timor, perhaps as early as this weekend, in cooperation with the Indonesian army.” At this rate there won’t be an East Timor left to fight about. Mind you, at least that would solve the problem pretty effectively.

Let’s face it. We have a foreign policy that reeks of hypocrisy. We defend our “principles” with fervor when the long term cost to us is relatively light (Kosovo) but when it comes to major economic interests and a serious scrape, we back down (East Timor, China). In a sense this attitude is perfectly human. This is what most of us do on a daily basis. We’ll give a couple of bucks to the guy on the corner for world peace, but we don’t have the time or energy to pursue all the causes we would ideally fight for. Somehow, though, I doubt this is what Kant meant when he spoke of applying private morality to that of states.

It would be too much to hope for that the “international community” would learn from its mistakes in Kosovo. I still wonder whether it was lack of consideration for human life or just stupidity that made us bomb Kosovo, knowing that this would manifoldly worsen the humanitarian situation on the ground. By angering the Serbs and taking Kosovo’s side, we didn’t exactly give them reasons to love each other. Naturally the human rights violations in Kosovo in some cases were atrocious and unacceptable by any standards, but NATO bears perhaps as much responsibility as anyone for creating motivation and opportunity for them to occur on the scale that they did.

Without going so far as to say that fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity, we need to realize that taking sides militarily in regional conflicts seldom if ever helps matters and only makes sense if we have real vested interests in the area that we are prepared to defend in the long term. Otherwise, these interventions make no sense and there is a long list of failures to serve as examples: Kosovo, Iraq, Vietnam, Cuba, Korea et al.

It might be useful to ask the question if the United States in fact has any right to intervene abroad on moral grounds. What exactly does the U.S. government think it is doing – going around being a Robin Hood superpower? If we have clear economic interests, let us defend them, as a player in international politics. But let us please stop trying to act like the messiah of a superior state of being when 12 million of our people are below the poverty line and when we see the state of our own moral culture.

The U.S. government’s role is to take care of its people, and its basis for intervention in foreign affairs should be limited to the interests of these people. If some people in our country think that they have a moral imperative to alleviate the ills of the world then nobody is stopping them from devoting their time and money to the task. On the contrary, such kinds of private initiative are to be commended. The government cannot, however, and must not, intervene abroad merely on the basis of “moral outrage.” The separation of state affairs and matters of moral conscience is central to the constitution of this country, and our government as well as a sizeable section of its people would do well to remember this.

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