U.S. can’t police world, or promise it might
Most Americans had never heard of East Timor before President Clinton decided last month to send several hundred U.S. troops to that breakaway Indonesian province. His decision caused me to think about why we’re directly involved in so many dangerous places around the world.
I don’t have a good answer to that question, and neither does the Clinton administration.
In the wake of Serbia’s defeat in Kosovo by U.S.-led NATO forces, President Clinton offered an expansive view of America’s ability and willingness to intervene in those places: “Whether you live in Africa or Central Europe, or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it’s within our power to stop it, we will stop it.”
He echoed President John F. Kennedy, who promised that we would go anywhere and pay any price in order to defend democracy and human rights.
Recently, however, Clinton turned down the volume of his rhetoric. “We cannot do everything everywhere,” he conceded in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. “Promising too much can be as cruel as caring too little.” He finally recognized that there are finite limits to our ability to solve internal problems in far-off lands, especially when such problems have proliferated while our defense budget has been slashed.
“Mr. Clinton still hasn’t come up with an unassailable doctrine,” the Washington Post commented in a recent editorial,” but his acknowledgment of the difficulties and complications is more attractive than his earlier glib assurances.”
The Post went on to note that “crimes against humanity are as wrong in Rwanda as in Sudan or Kosovo or East Timor.” So why did we decide to intervene in Kosovo and East Timor, but not in Rwanda or Sudan? Because of racial overtones, that’s a deeply troubling question.
The good news in the East Timor intervention is that the Australians took the lead. The chaos and tumult that engulfed East Timor after a vote for independence from Indonesia represented a threat to the national security of Australia, so the Aussies provided the lion’s share of a United Nations peacekeeping force that also includes American communications and logistics specialists.
“The East Timor peacekeeping force arrived too late, but its deployment with U.N. blessing is a good sign,” the Washington Post opined. “So is the precedent that the United States need not be in the forefront each and every time.” Despite the presence of more than 2,000 U.N. peacekeepers, many of the poverty-stricken citizens of East Timor still fear the Indonesian military. Post foreign correspondent Doug Struck found many families ” hiding in flimsy shelters built into (mountain) crevasses. They were hungry, but not starving … surviving on a diet of papaya leaves and a woody, potato-like root mixed with the little rice they had.”
“With more than half its buildings destroyed and its infrastructure heavily damaged, Dili (the capital of East Timor) is a dark and frightened place by night, and a monument to destruction by daylight,” Struck wrote. “It still has a long way to go.” And there’s where I have a problem with many of these humanitarian interventions – it’s much easier to get in than to get out.
Kosovo and East Timor are simply the most recent in a series of humanitarian emergencies this decade that also include northern Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. What’s next? Chechnya? Tibet? According to the Council on Foreign Relations, 35 million individuals are presently caught up in 22 humanitarian emergencies around the world. We should ask ourselves how many of these countries are better off because of our intervention. In this regard, Haiti is a revealing case study.
Another Washington Post foreign correspondent, Serge Kovaleski, recently visited Haiti five years after a U.S./U.N. intervention that sought to restore democracy to that impoverished Caribbean country.
“Haiti’s Legislative Palace these days is an empty shell,” Kovaleski observed. “The historically corrupt and inefficient justice system remains plagued by serious problems that undermine individual rights, due process and the rule of law.”
As the humanitarian mission winds down – most foreign troops and advisers will be gone by the end of the year – Kovaleski reported that Haiti is still “a weak and financially constrained state unable to meet the needs of its people.” Only a quarter of the population has access to safe drinking water and most Haitians have no electricity or phone service; moreover, about half the children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition.
Haiti clearly illustrates the limits of foreign intervention. Despite our best intentions, the country is still an international basket case. Although state-sponsored killings have decreased, U.S.-trained Haitian National Police officers were recently accused of the execution-style murders of 11 people in Port-au-Prince.
Experienced observers say a stable democracy will remain out of reach until Haitian leaders get used to power-sharing, an alien concept in a country governed by a succession of corrupt military dictators – not too different from the situation in East Timor. That’s why each future American intervention should be accompanied by a specific exit strategy.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.