From the Archive: Let Us Not Praise the Late Richard Holbrooke

200,000 Skeletons in Richard Holbrooke's Closet

[Editor’s Note: Another errand boy for the empire has passed. Richard Holbrooke, the Obama Administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan and a veteran diplomat, died last Monday. True to form, the mainstream press has been falling over itself in canonizing “The Bulldozer”, as he was called. The saintly glow that frames the man’s name in the media’s outpouring of adulation masks the dark diplomat’s terrible misdeeds through administrations Republican and Democratic. The following article was written over 11 years ago, and it explores a little known chapter in Holbrooke’s career that doubtless will be passed over by corporate media.]

200,000 Skeletons in Richard Holbrooke’s Closet
by Sunil K. Sharma
March 22, 1999

Much ado has been made in the press and academic discussions about how Richard Holbrooke has been a force for peace in the Yugoslavia imbroglio. The reality behind Holbrooke’s activities in the former Yugoslavia has been excellently exposed in recent issues of Covert Action Quarterly and elsewhere by journalist and Yugoslavia expert Diana Johnstone.

A little known chapter in Holbrooke’s career in the US government is his complicity in Indonesia’s campaign of genocide against East Timor. Holbrooke was head of the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the Carter Administration. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor, which it continues to occupy today, killing over 200,000 Timorese in the process, approximately 1/3 of the pre-invasion population. The US supported Indonesia in ways that are already well known; there is no doubt that the invasion, ongoing occupation, and genocide could not have been possible without US support.

Following Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, the US supposedly imposed an “arms ban” on Indonesia from December 1975 to June 1976. The ban was a secret. In fact the ban was so secret that the Indonesians were completely unaware of it as they unpacked the American weapons that flowed to them unabated. This fraud was later exposed by Cornell University professor Benedict Anderson in his testimony before Congress in February 1978. Anderson cited a report, “confirmed from the Department of Defense printout,” showing that there never was an arms ban, and that the US initiated new offers of military weaponry to the Indonesians during the period of the alleged ban:

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 General 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. ((Hearings Before the Subcommittee on International Organizations of the Committee on International Relations. US Policy on Human Rights and Military Assistance: Overview and Indonesia, February 15, 1978.))

Indeed by late 1977 the Indonesians literally began to run out of weapons in its campaign to destroy the Timorese. The Carter Administration stepped in and increased military aid and weapons sales to the Indonesians, which fueled Indonesia’s stepped up campaigns of 1978 to 1980 when the level of killing reached genocidal proportions.

When asked by Australian reporters at a press conference about atrocities in East Timor, Holbrooke responded:

I want to stress I am not remotely interested in getting involved in an argument over the actual number of people killed. People were killed and that always is a tragedy but what is at issue is the actual situation in Timor today . . . [Asked about how many Timorese were killed in the past] . . . we are never going to know anyway. ((John Hamilton, “Timor death toll not the issue: US,” Melbourne Herald, April 7, 1977.))

The date of this press conference was April 6, 1977. Holbrooke would most certainly have been aware that a few days earlier (April 1) the Melbourne Age quoted Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik as saying that, “50,000 people or perhaps 80,000 might have been killed during the war in Timor, but we saved 600,000 of them.” Also on April 1, the Canberra Times quoted Malik as saying:

The total may be 50,000, but what does this mean if compared with 600,000 people who want to join Indonesia? [sic!] Then what is the big fuss. It is possible that they may have been killed by the Australians and not us. Who knows? It was war.

Malik’s claim that perhaps 10% of the Timorese population may have been killed in less than two years was a bit much for the United States: Australian state radio reported, “The State Department is clearly embarrassed by Adam Malik’s statement that the number killed in East Timor might have been as high as 80,000.” ((Australian sources cited in Chomsky, Noam and Edward S. Herman. The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume I (South End Press, 1979), pp. 174-175. )) Fortunately the State Department could rely on the US media’s overwhelming silence on the subject of East Timor and American complicity to spare them from any embarrassment here at home.

In September 1978, US Ambassador to Indonesia Edward Masters went to East Timor accompanied by an entourage of Indonesian diplomats. While there, Masters visited refugee camps — concentration camps to be more precise — that the Timorese had been herded into by the Indonesians, where they where subjected to a forced starvation policy. According to one US reporter who was there, Masters and company “came away so shocked by the conditions of the refugees that they immediately contacted the governor of East Timor . . . to explore the possibilities for providing foreign humanitarian assistance.” However, it would not be until a full nine months had passed that Masters (in June 1979) would urge the US to provide humanitarian assistance. The timing of Masters’ silence coincided with Indonesia being bolstered by a huge shipment of US military aid and weapons described above. As Benedict Anderson told Congress in 1980:

In other words, for nine long months, from September 1978 to June 1979, while “in ever increasing numbers the starving and the ailing, wearing rags at best, drifted onto the coastal plain,” ((Anderson is quoting from an article by Henry Kamm in the New York Times, January 28, 1980.)) Ambassador Masters deliberately refrained, even within the walls of the State Department, from proposing humanitarian aid to East Timor. Until the generals in Jakarta gave him the green light, Mr. Masters did nothing to help the East Timorese, although Mr. Holbrooke insists that “the welfare of the Timorese people is the major objective of our policy towards East Timor. ((Holbrooke, written statement to the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, Committee on Foreign Affairs, December 4, 1979. The topic of the hearing was East Timor, which Holbrooke did not bother to attend. Anderson’s statement: Benedict R.O.G. Anderson, testimony at the Hearings before the Subcommittees on Asian and Pacific Affairs and on International Organizations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 96th Congress, 2nd Session, February 1980 (US Government Printing Office, 1980). ))

Despite the fact that the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor was and is an egregious violation of international law and an act of genocide, the Carter administration and Holbrooke in particular, while acknowledging that the East Timorese had not been allowed to carry out an act of self-determination, regarded the situation as a fait accompli. ((Holbrooke said as much to author James Dunn. Timor: A People Betrayed (The Jacaranda Press, 1983), p.351.))

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who at the time was the US ambassador to the UN, boasted in his memoir that he effectively prevented the UN from implementing resolutions calling on Indonesia to withdraw immediately from Timor and which affirmed the Timorese people’s right to self-determination:

The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success. ((Moynihan, Daniel P with Suzanne Weaver. A Dangerous Place (Little Brown, 1980), p.247.))

The State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs was Holbrooke’s fiefdom. While the State Department made great efforts to interview Cambodian refugees in order to assess the level of human rights violations by the Khmer Rouge, the opposite was true of Timorese refugees who were easily accessible in Australia and Portugal. A Christian Science Monitor article from 1980 on East Timor and the State Department’s indifference to the plight of the Timorese is worth quoting at length:

Francisco Fernandes, a Roman Catholic priest who served for several years as head of the Timorese refugee community, said he knew of no attempt by US officials to seek out and interview any of the more than 2,000 such refugees who have been living in Portugal for the past several years.

Even today, with the magnitude of the East Timor problem better known, refugees going directly to the State Department in Washington with their stories find that most officials here give the benefit of the doubt to the Indonesians.

“He acted like a lawyer for the Indonesians,” said one refugee after talking with a State Department official recently. . . .

What many Timorese would like . . . is the departure of the Indonesians and control over their own affairs. The Timorese identity and languages are distinct from those of the Indonesians.

But in deferring to Indonesia on this issue, the Carter administration, like the Ford administration before it, appears to have placed big-power concerns ahead of human rights: Indonesia is an anticommunist, largely Muslim, oil-producing nation with the fifth-largest population in the world. It commands sea lanes between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke recently declared it is potentially one of the great nations of the world.

US policy toward East Timor has been made for the most part by the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, headed by Mr. Holbrooke. The bureau most concerned with human rights, which is headed by Assistant Secretary Patricia Derian, was barely getting organized in 1977 when East Timor policy was first set by the Carter administration.

However, it was Ms. Derian, not Mr. Holbrooke, who was in the position of having to answer questions about East Timor, among other subjects, at a recent congressional hearing. Mr. Holbrooke let it be known he was too busy preparing for a trip to appear at the Feb. 6 hearing. He did have the time, however, to play host at a black-tie dinner later the same day. ((Daniel Southerland, “US Role in Plight of Timor: An Issue That Won’t Go Away”, Christian Science Monitor, March 6, 1980, p.7.))

All of this stands in stark contrast to Holbrooke’s impassioned defense of the right of Kosovar Albanians to “autonomy”. Perhaps he’s had some kind of religious conversion in recent years.

The Carter Administration’s position on Indonesia and East Timor was best summed up by Assistant Secretary Holbrooke in a more honest moment:

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. President Suharto and other prominent Indonesian leaders have publicly called for the release of our hostages in Iran. Indonesia’s position within the Association of South East Asian Nations — ASEAN — is also important and it has played a central role in the supporting Thailand and maintaining the security of Thailand in the face of Vietnam’s destabilizing actions in Indo-China [sic]. Finally, Indonesia has provided humane treatment for over 50,000 Indo-Chinese refugees and taken the initiative in offering an island site as an ASEAN refugee processing centre. Indonesia is, of course, important to key US allies in the region, especially Japan and Australia. We highly value our cooperative relationship with Indonesia. ((Foreign Assistance and Related Programs: Appropriations for 1981. Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, 96th Congress, June 1980. Cited in ibid. p.354.))

If there was a world in which an International Court of Justice had any meaning, Richard Holbrooke’s shameful service to State power would surely be characterized as a series of Crimes Against Humanity. For now, such a thought is merely a fantasy for those of us who seek peace and justice.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on December 18th, 2010 at 9:56am #

    according to sunil, devil forbid there be any bosnian muslim or croat who cld explain yug’v ’embroglio’. according to him, a dianne johnstone did that.

    it is like saying: look, croats and bosnian muslims are tribal, uncultured, primitive tribes, not to be trusted, etc.

    the label ’embroglio’ had been chosen to indicate that it started with barroom brawl; everybody attacking everybody else, etc.

    i do not know what DJ wrote. so, i cannot comment on her book!

    the fact is that croatia eventually defeated serbia. croatia succeeded by slowly arming itself with e.german weaponry and in the meanwhile, according to croat military observers, adopted nato tactical battling and serbia did not.

    it is a fact that u.k, russia, france, canada, u.s were proserb and anticroat until, say, ’94.

    check “oluja”, please! serbia had told croat’n serbs in early ’95 to go for an agreement with croatia. look, serbia said: u’v lost maslenica battle, losing ab. 60 fighters, then came medak pocket, and bljesak ’93 [blitz], loosing another 400 fighters, it’s over.
    before oluja [storm], u.k had threatened to bomb croatia because or previous croat victories.
    nato strongly urged croatia not launch the storm on ’95. 08. 05. there was talk about sanctions also.

    so, why does the croatian story differ so much from the story that socalled left in canada and u.s present? tnx

  2. bozh said on December 18th, 2010 at 11:54am #

    it shld be told that croatian communists made a big mistake for not publicly and officially declaring that croatian partizani had slaughtered anywhere from 60k-120k ustasha soldiers and civilians who surrendered in ’45 to british troops in austria.
    they were unarmed; most were shot; others died on the long march back to croatia.

    thus, avenging deaths of serbs, jews, croat’ns, and roms. serbia knew this. it knew that partizani [?serb] had slain about 30k chetniks [fascists]
    slovenia, croatia, and serbia had puppet govts in ’41-45; each fought with germans or italians against tito’s partizani.

    so, serb fascist aggression [communist govt was out of power in ’87] was not waged to avenge serb deaths by ustashas. and in view that croatia was ruled by communists even in mid ’91, a fortiori so.
    in addition, all the biggest croat criminals escaped before war!
    another factor in not knowing the facts i just posited, was diaspora croats, who were overwhelmingly pro-ustasha; thus, were silent about croatian resistance to germans and italians.

    it is one thing demanding the actual perpetrators be punished
    and an entirely different matter using this to achieve a conquest and kill innocent people.
    cases in point, jews in 22-2010 and serbs in ’91.
    nato now is hunting in serbia for serb war criminals, but neither it nor croatia is invading serbia or killing innocent serbs because serbia harbors criminals.

    one thing, appears certain serbs wld not be allowed to join europe or be part of economic union unless it delivers these people to icty! tnx

  3. Sunil K. Sharma said on December 18th, 2010 at 2:32pm #

    Bozh, my article was about Indonesia, East Timor and Holbrooke, not the former Yugoslavia. And again, the article was written 11 years ago when the US attack on Serbia was looming and Holbrooke was much in the news as the Clinton Administration’s pointman in the Balkans. I simply was making a point that given Holbrooke’s past, his role as a peace broker in the Balkans crisis should be questioned. I said nothing, nor did I proffer any views about the actual situation in the Balkans, so it’s pointless for you to infer anything about whose side I favored, or that I think the Croats and Muslims are “tribal, uncultured, or primitive,” etc. etc.

    It would be nice if reader comments actually address the article at hand, rather than be a springboard for pointless rants.

    — Sunil

  4. Rehmat said on December 18th, 2010 at 2:56pm #

    In the Zionist-controlled media, there was no mention of Holbrooke’s Jewish roots (a Russian Jewish father and Argentian Jewish mother) or how he showed his anti-Muslim mentality against Bosnian Muslims and expulsion of 300 Iranian government and military advisers (Dayton Peace Accord in 1995) and his campaign against Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. Holbrooke’s some of many diplomatic, financial and presidential campaigner credentials included being member of at least two of powerful America’s Jewish think tanks, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). He also wrote a monthly column for the Israeli propaganda organs, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy (he even acted as magazine’s editor for five years). In 2007, Joshua Frank wrote that Hillary Clinton, Holbrooke and Dennis Ross are Israel Lobby’s agents on US foreign policy. He even predicted that if Hillary Clinton became President, she would appoint Holbrooke as her Secretary of State……

  5. bozh said on December 18th, 2010 at 3:39pm #

    sunil, yes u did call, what to many people had been serb agressions, an “embroglio”.
    in addition, u said that dianne johnstone explains holbrookes’s role in the conflict in ex-yugoaslavia.

    both serbs and croats have also own explanations; which may or may not be
    more elucidating than that of dianne.

    my points are valid, i believe. that’s why i am posting now and posted before. tnx for ur comment!

  6. bozh said on December 18th, 2010 at 3:54pm #

    btw, i did not call what u wrote a “rant”. why split asunder writing into ranty and not ranty? who thought u to think that way?

    and u have not withdrawn the label imbroglio; which, of course, appears quite a distort of reality.
    devil help us with such ‘leftist’ writings! tnx

  7. Sunil K. Sharma said on December 18th, 2010 at 7:50pm #


    I simply explained in my comment what the article is about and the context of the situation at the time it was written. Whether you want to call it that or not, my comment is not or would not be a “rant” by any reasonable definition. On the other hand, you posted two comments about my article on East Timor/Indonesia and Holbrooke with long passages about an unrelated topic, apparently addressing views I never expressed ab0ut said unrelated topic simply because you inferred them by my use of the word “imbroglio”. Well, I would call THAT a rant.

    One definition of the word “imbroglio” is : “a complicated situation.” (Webster’s) What unfolded in the former Yugoslavia in the late ’80s and ’90s was in my view, and the view of many others, a complicated story. The dominant narrative in the West that the Serbs were the root of all (or most of) evil in the breakup of Yugoslavia was simplistic, inaccurate, and was disseminated to justify US intervention in the Balkans for reasons having nothing to do with humanitarian intent.

    As far as I’m concerned, there were no good guys in the conflict (even remotely). Not Milosevic and the Serb government, not Izetbegovic, not Tudjman, not the US, not NATO, not Germany . . . no one. There were moves on the part of the US and Germany to hasten the breakup of Yugoslavia, which was guaranteed to result in conflict and strife; there were contradictory internal politics among the local actors in Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo that often dovetailed with the agenda of the outside meddlers; there were the interests and intrigues of Yugoslav nationalists versus local ethnic groups that wanted to depart from the federation; there were unresolved ethnic tensions that were glossed over or suppressed under the rule of Tito that, along with the economic collapse following his death, led to the rise of right-wing chauvinist movements among all the groups; there were ethnic cleansings against every group and all sides were guilty in carrying them out (I’m not interested in debating who was worse), and so on. In other words, the situation was very fluid and complicated, not easily owing itself to one interpretation or solution . . . hence an “imbroglio”. So why I should “withdraw” the use of that simple adjective for what was in fact a complicated situation is beyond me.

    I understand that Diana Johnstone is a controversial figure among those interested in the Balkans. I have found much value in her work on Yugoslavia in terms of the information she presents (much of it excluded from American reporting), though I don’t agree with the conclusions she draws from that body of information. I happen to think that she all too often goes easy on Milosevic and the Serb government. I know this is difficult for some of the people who frequently chime in on the DV Comments section to fathom, but you can actually learn a lot of valuable information from other people and not agree with their conclusions and/or reflexively bash them as an apologist of one sort or another. One critical article about Johnstone’s book on Yugoslavia that I think has much merit — and emphasizes the complexity (hence my “imbroglio”) of the Balkan situation — can be read at: That said, the information Johnstone brought forth about Holbrooke specifically was in my view compelling, damning, and cause for suspicion about his work in the Balkans on behalf of the Clinton Administration.

    You wrote, “both serbs and croats have also own explanations; which may or may not be more elucidating than that of dianne.” Yes indeed. And the Slovenians, Albanians, Roma, and Bosnians and whoever else also have competing interpretations and claims, thus making for a COMPLEX situation — i.e an “imbroglio”.

    I don’t know that I or anyone else knows the real truth about what transpired in the Balkans and whether we’ll ever really find out with any certainty. One thing I do know, however, is that, clearly, Richard Holbrooke was an asshole and a person undeserving of any accolade. And that IS the topic here.


    — Sunil

  8. hayate said on December 18th, 2010 at 11:27pm #

    Sunil K. Sharma

    Every site has it’s “sitters”. These are establishment spambots tasked with monitoring the site and disrupting it. Some are ziofascist, some are plain fascist, some swing both ways. They will post all kinds of irrelevant rubbish, many will employ a special quirk that is intended to consume more time from a reader (extra disruption points there, with possible salary bonus), but one thing they do have in common, you’ll see reams of their misdirection and strawmen after almost every topic. They rattle on, and on, and on….and don’t write a damn thing worth reading.

  9. bozh said on December 19th, 2010 at 7:28am #

    u said it– u own it! i say it–i own it. to u, aggressor=defender. but that’s not how slovenes [they bad people, too?], croats, bosnians, magyars, and albanian see it.

    and obviously, u’d get angry [judging by what u say to me] if a croat, slovene, et al wld have their say; thus, are not asked or possibly not permitted to attempt to refute ur or Left’s narrative.

    and i did not call your piece “rant”. i pointed out to u that ur dichotomizing writing into ranty and not ranty. u, readers, get to guess, who gets a “rant” grade.

    but now u even dichotomize warfare into an “embroglio” and by implication crystal clear warfare.

    what wld some people say if they cld not complexify a simplicity. such as an aggression took place against afgh’n, iraq, croatia. and only after that ?all sunnis, shias, pashtuns, americans, croats, serbs equally bad and equally responsible for aggressions.
    as i said, u say– u own it. tnx

  10. Rehmat said on December 19th, 2010 at 6:16pm #

    “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.'”

    The Blood on Holbrooke’s Hands