Remembering Richard Holbrooke

In the wee morning hours of January 3rd, 2009 a U.S. spy plane killed 15 individuals in Pakistan near the Afghanistan border. It was Barack Obama’s first blood and the U.S.’ first violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty under the new administration.

As the U.S. government fired upon alleged terrorists in the rugged outback of Pakistan, Obama was back in Washington appointing Richard Holbrooke as a special U.S. representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, like the remote-control bombing that claimed human life that day, Obama’s vision for the region, in the embodiment of Holbrooke, was not a drastic departure from the failed Bush doctrine.

“[Holbrooke] is one of the most talented diplomats of his generation,” Obama said during a press conference at the State Department during the same month. In his speech Obama declared that both Afghanistan and Pakistan will be the “central front” in the War on Terror. “There, as in the Middle East, we must understand that we cannot deal with our problems in isolation,” Obama stated.

Despite Obama’s insistence that Holbrooke was qualified to lead new efforts in the War on Terror, history disagreed.

In 1975, during Gerald Ford’s administration, Indonesia invaded East Timor and slaughtered 200,000 indigenous Timorese. The Indonesian invasion of East Timor set the stage for a long and bloody occupation that recently ended after an international peacekeeping force was introduced in 1999.

Transcripts of meetings among Indonesian dictator Mohamed Suharto, Ford, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger have shown conclusively that Kissinger and Ford authorized and encouraged Suharto’s murderous actions. “We will understand and will not press you on the issue [of East Timor],” said President Ford in a meeting with Suharto and Kissinger in early December 1975, days before Suharto’s bloodbath. “We understand the problem and the intentions you have,” he added.

Henry Kissinger also stressed at the meeting that “the use of U.S.-made arms could create problems,” but then added, “It depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self-defense or is a foreign operation.” Thus, Kissinger’s concern was not about whether U.S. arms would be used offensively, but whether the act could be interpreted as illegal. Kissinger went on: “It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.”

After Ford’s loss and Jimmy Carter’s ascent to the White House in 1976, Indonesia requested additional arms to continue its brutal occupation, even though there was a supposed ban on arms transfers to Suharto’s government. It was Carter’s appointee to the Department of State’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Richard Holbrooke, who authorized additional arms shipments to Indonesia during this supposed blockade. Many scholars have noted that this was the period when the Indonesian suppression of the Timorese reached genocidal levels.

During his testimony before Congress in February 1978, Professor Benedict Anderson cited a report that proved there was never a U.S. arms ban, and that during the period of the alleged ban the U.S. initiated new offers of military weaponry to the Indonesians:

If we are curious as to why the Indonesians never felt the force of the U.S. government’s ‘anguish,’ the answer is quite simple. In flat contradiction to express statements by Gen. Fish, Mr. Oakley, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard Holbrooke, at least four separate offers of military equipment were made to the Indonesian government during the January-June 1976 ‘administrative suspension.’ This equipment consisted mainly of supplies and parts for OV-10 Broncos, Vietnam War-era planes designed for counterinsurgency operations against adversaries without effective anti-aircraft weapons, and wholly useless for defending Indonesia from a foreign enemy. The policy of supplying the Indonesian regime with Broncos, as well as other counterinsurgency-related equipment, has continued without substantial change from the Ford through the present Carter administrations.

The disturbing symbiosis between Holbrooke and figures like überhawk Paul Wolfowitz is startling.

“In an unguarded moment just before the 2000 election, Richard Holbrooke opened a foreign policy speech with a fawning tribute to his host, Paul Wolfowitz, who was then the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington,” reported Tim Shorrock following the terrorist attacks in 2001.

Shorrock continued: “Holbrooke, a senior adviser to Al Gore, was acutely aware that either he or Wolfowitz would be playing important roles in the next administration. Looking perhaps to assure the world of the continuity of U.S. foreign policy, he told his audience that Wolfowitz’s ‘recent activities illustrate something that’s very important about American foreign policy in an election year, and that is the degree to which there are still common themes between the parties.’ The example he chose to illustrate his point was East Timor, which was invaded and occupied in 1975 by Indonesia with U.S. weapons – a security policy backed and partly shaped by Holbrooke and Wolfowitz. ‘Paul and I,’ he said, ‘have been in frequent touch to make sure that we keep [East Timor] out of the presidential campaign, where it would do no good to American or Indonesian interests.'”

Holbrooke worked vigorously to keep his bloody campaign silent, and it appears to have paid off. In chilling words, Holbrooke described the motivations behind his support of Indonesia’s genocidal actions:

“The situation in East Timor is one of the number of very important concerns of the United States in Indonesia. Indonesia, with a population of 150 million people, is the fifth largest nation in the world, is a moderate member of the Non-Aligned Movement, is an important oil producer – which plays a moderate role within OPEC – and occupies a strategic position astride the sea lanes between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. … We highly value our cooperative relationship with Indonesia.”

Richard Holbrooke may have passed, but the influence he had on U.S. foreign policy sadly lives on.

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