Kissinger lied. But if you find it hard to get worked up about this news, you are not alone. It is a familiar cycle: our government airs revelations about foreign policy abuses only once those policies have already run their course. Meanwhile, as with Bush-Powell foreign policy today, there is no way to know the nature of the new round of abuses currently underway. In our political culture, we are doomed never to reckon with the present.
This winter, the public finally obtained in full a crucial document from the years Henry Kissinger served as secretary of state. We now know exactly what was said in a meeting among Kissinger, President Ford, and President Suharto, dictator of Indonesia, on December 6, 1975 – the day before Indonesia invaded East Timor. Only the latest in a long list of revelations, this decades-old record proves once and for all that Suharto began the invasion knowing he had the full approval of the White House.
It is an account quite contrary to the story Kissinger has told – in public, at least – ever since that meeting took place. “Timor was never discussed with us when we were in Indonesia,” he told a New York audience in 1995. And in a 1999 radio interview, he explained that Timor was mentioned only when “We were told at the airport as we left Jakarta that either that day or the next day they intended to take East Timor.”
Actually, thanks to the independent National Security Archive at George Washington University, which works tirelessly for declassification, we now know that Timor was discussed at length that day. Suharto complained to Ford and Kissinger that the left-leaning former Portuguese colony of East Timor had “declared independence unilaterally” and that therefore “we want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action.” Ford assured him that “We will understand and will not press you on the issue. We understand the problem and the intensions you have.”
And what advice did Kissinger – the Nobel peace prize laureate – offer the commander of a notoriously brutal military, 80 percent of whose funding came form the United States? He merely cautioned that “it is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly” and that “it would be better if it were done after we returned” to the United States. The public appearance of the invasion merited lecturing Suharto. Its actual impact on the Timorese did not.
And by all accounts, the bloodbath that ensued met Kissinger’s criteria: Suharto waited for Ford and Kissinger to return home, and he succeeded quickly, killing 60,000-100,000 in the first year and, by the State Department’s own count, leaving 300,000 in relocation camps run by the Indonesian military.
When challenged to account for East Timor’s destruction under his watch, Kissinger pleads good intentions. “What most people who deal with government don’t understand is [the] overwhelming experiences of being in high office,” he explained in New York while promoting his book Diplomacy – which, like all of his memoirs, omits Timor completely. “Maybe, regrettably, we weren’t ever thinking about Timor.”
But other documents suggest that if Kissinger is guilty of a sin with respect to Timor, it is not benign neglect. When the invasion began, Kissinger’s top legal advisor made the mistake of observing that military funds for Indonesia would have to be cut off because of a U.S. law that restricted the aid to defensive purposes. When Kissinger found out that this fact had been committed to paper, he was furious.
“I was told…that there was a legal requirement to do it,” pleaded one assistant in a transcript released several years ago. “I know what the law is,” Kissinger barked, moaning that “the Timor thing, that will leak in three months, and it will come out that Kissinger overruled his pristine bureaucrats and violated the law.” And even though the occupation was barely ten days old, he asserted that “No one who was worked with me in the last two years could not know what my view would be on Timor.”
When Kissinger is away from the public eye, it seems, his language changes sharply. Nowhere in Kissinger’s secret conversations is his office too “overwhelmed” by the problems of the world to form a specific policy on Timor. He is, in fact, “thinking about Timor” – just not about the expendable Timorese people. Neither do the laws passed by Congress matter to the real Kissinger, unless it might be discovered that he was conspiring to break them.
Kissinger had no ill will towards Timor, but the fate of a few unruly natives was nothing next to the strategic importance of Suharto’s anti-communist regime, especially after the loss of the Vietnam War. Whether or not each of us accepts this logic depends essentially on our views of the Cold War. Soviet imperialism certainly posed a threat, but was support for right-wing dictatorships the only answer? Were these regimes really better for the people of the world, or just for extending the power of the United States – at great cost to human life?
In any case, there are many who see Kissinger as one of the great war criminals. Evidence that he broke specific American and international laws is clear and readily available; indeed he is currently being sought for questioning by judges in Argentina, Chile, and France, which he fled after being served a court summons. The issue, however, has yet to be taken seriously in mainstream discourse. Why does the mounting legal case against a father of American postwar foreign policy not merit attention from our journalistic and academic leaders?
As long as students continue to be taught that our nation’s foreign policy has been wrought of good intentions and innocent blundering rather than the need for power and control, little will change. Just as the better part of the Kissinger period will never be declassified, neither will much of the Bush-Powell period – and all we will have are occasional moments of insight punctuating long periods of pleasant fictions.