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Beware a Wolfowitz in Sheep's Clothing
Washington Backs Indonesian Military Again

by Joseph Nevins
March 17, 2005
First Published in Indonesia Alert!

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[Editor's Note: This article was written just before President Bush tapped Paul Wolfowitz to be President of the World Bank on March 16.]

When I saw Paul Wolfowitz’s smug grin in the January 17 issue of The New York Times, trouble was clearly on the horizon. The photo showed him in tsunami-stricken Indonesia, accompanying the country’s defense minister, Juwono Sudarsono. His visit was under the guise of humanitarianism. But as always with Wolfowitz and Indonesia, a more nefarious project is in the offing: strengthening Washington’s ties with the Indonesian military (TNI).

The first and only time I ever saw Wolfowitz in person was on May 7, 1997. I was in Room 2172 of the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington. The occasion was a hearing of the House of Representative’s Committee on International Relations’ Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. The subject was “United States Policy Toward Indonesia.”

Wolfowitz walked in confidently from the front of the room just as the hearings were getting underway. Well-groomed and, at the time, in his mid-50s, he vigorously shook the hands of many of those present while smiling broadly. They called him “ambassador” as they greeted him.

Paul Wolfowitz would, of course, emerge a few years later as the infamous under-secretary of defense for the administration of George W. Bush. As such, he was one of the principal fabricators of Saddam as Hitler redux and a head cheerleader for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Prior to that, Wolfowitz served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 1982 to 1986, and as ambassador to Indonesia during the Reagan administration's final three years. He thus was the primary architect of U.S. policy toward the resource-rich country in the 1980s. During his tenure, U.S. support for the TNI peaked despite, among many crimes, the military's illegal occupation of East Timor, which resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 people.

At the time of the May 1997 hearing on Capitol Hill, Wolfowitz was dean of the prestigious School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University and was an active member of the corporate-funded U.S.-Indonesia Society; he was thus still in a position to continue to exert influence on Washington's relations with Jakarta.

Douglas Bereuter, then a Republican representative from Nebraska, presided over the proceedings as chair of the subcommittee. A long-time supporter of Suharto’s “New Order” government, Bereuter had proven to be among the staunchest opponents of efforts to block military aid to Jakarta. He opened the hearing by extolling the New Order’s virtues, saying that it had “done much to preserve peace in Southeast Asia” and that it had “welcomed the U.S. security presence in the region and . . . granted U.S. forces access to Indonesian facilities.” While Bereuter acknowledged the Suharto regime’s less-than-shining human rights record -- including that in East Timor -- he argued for “continued military interaction” with Jakarta through American training and for “the sale of appropriately limited military equipment.” Such “interaction,” he opined, would “advance U.S. security interests as well as the cause of democracy and human rights.”

Wolfowitz’s testimony struck a similar tone, while explicitly arguing against any talk in Washington of support for East Timorese independence -- talk that he characterized as “destructive” -- and calling for a renewal of U.S. military training of the TNI. His testimony stressed Jakarta’s many “achievements.” “[I]n the 7 years since I left Indonesia,” he declaimed, “on the positive side, there has been significantly greater openness in a number of respects. There is more open questioning of public officials on government decisions that have gone against the government, although in most cases, the government eventually prevailed. There have been court-martials of military officers for the massacre in East Timor in 1991. And I might note that I think for any military to court martial its officers for that kind of action takes an effort.” [1]

The former ambassador was referring to Jakarta’s charade-like prosecution and sentencing to minimal prison terms of a handful of low-ranking TNI officers in response to international criticism over what Indonesia termed “the Santa Cruz incident.” This was Jakarta’s euphemism for a massacre by the TNI of hundreds of peaceful pro-independence demonstrators in East Timor’s capital in November 1991. The prosecutions and convictions dovetailed neatly with the official Indonesian line that the bloodbath--what a United Nations Commission on Human Rights’ investigation characterized as a “planned military operation” -- was not the result of a concerted policy, but of the actions of a few rogue soldiers. [2]

In his prepared written statement submitted to the subcommittee, Wolfowitz praised Suharto, a dictator who seized power through what the CIA described “as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.” Over the course of several months in 1965-1966, the Suharto-led military and its minions slaughtered members of the Indonesian Communist Party along with members of loosely affiliated organizations such as women's groups and labor unions. Amnesty International estimated “many more than one million” were killed. The head of the Indonesian state security system approximated the toll at half a million, with another 750,000 jailed or sent to concentration camps.

But such unpleasantness was clearly not on Wolfowitz’s mind in composing his statement. “Any balanced judgment" of the country's human rights situation, he opined, “needs to take account of the significant progress that Indonesia has already made.” Much of the progress, he declared, was due to Suharto's “strong and remarkable leadership.”

In 1998, massive protests led Asia's longest-reigning dictator to step down. Hence Wolfowitz quickly changed his tune, later characterizing Suharto in an interview on PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer as someone who “without any question was fighting reform every step of the way.” [3] Yet, he continued to defend the Indonesian military as a force for good.

On February 17, 1999, Wolfowitz was in the secretary of state’s private dining room for a working dinner called by its hostess, Madeleine Albright. The invited guests were academics, all of them Indonesia specialists. After a dessert of apple crisp and rum-raisin ice cream, the secretary of state asked the guests specific questions about developments in Indonesia, a country she was preparing to visit in March. The last topic of discussion was East Timor.

Geoffrey Robinson, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, had been designated to speak on the matter. A State Department representative had told Robinson that he was to discuss alternatives to a referendum in East Timor, to explain what would be viable options other than a one-person-one-vote process as there were elements within the State Department who did not support that concept. Despite those instructions, Robinson made it clear in his remarks that only a legitimate act of self-determination -- in the form of some sort of universal ballot organized and run by the United Nations -- would satisfy the East Timorese population, and that there were no viable alternatives.

Sitting at the other end of the table, Wolfowitz quickly responded, informing Albright and the other guests that independence for East Timor was simply not a realistic option. Employing language long utilized by Jakarta, he argued that East Timor would descend into civil war if Indonesia were to withdraw, leading to the same sort of chaos that unfolded in 1975. The problem in East Timor, he contended, was one of tribal and clan-based differences. Only the Indonesian military had been able to put an end to the fighting, according to the esteemed former professor.

A State Department official politely called the evening to a close as soon as Robinson informed Wolfowitz of the wrong-headed nature of his analysis.

Several months later, East Timor overwhelmingly opted for independence in a U.N.-run ballot. In response, the TNI and its militia proxies killed many hundreds of civilians, while raping untold numbers of women and girls and laying waste to the vast majority of the territory’s buildings and infrastructure, before finally withdrawing. As when Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975, it was not the atavistic propensity of the East Timorese to fight amongst themselves that was the problem, but an aggressive and brutal TNI and its patrons in Washington (among other Western capitals).

The TNI’s myriad crimes in East Timor could not have happened without the significant economic, military, and diplomatic support of the TNI from the United States. Indeed, such support was decisive in allowing the 1975 invasion to take place and for the occupation to endure as long it did. But Washington -- and a compliant corporate media and Beltway pundit class -- have effectively buried this history.

The intentional nature of this “forgetting” -- in addition to the deep bipartisan nature of support for U.S. empire and an ugly global status quo -- was on shameless display on May 13, 2000, in Italy at the Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University. The guest speaker was Richard Holbrooke, a man who had also served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs -- during the Carter “human rights” administration -- and who thus also has a great deal of East Timorese blood on his hands. Introducing him was Dean Paul Wolfowitz.

After Wolfowitz’s flowery welcome, Holbrooke returned the favor, cracking a joke about how the introduction showed that he gets “better treatment from Republicans than Democrats in some quarters.” He then praised the former ambassador to Jakarta as “a continuing participant in the effort to find the right policy for one of the most important countries in the world, Indonesia.” Holbrooke proceeded to explain how Wolfowitz’s “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. East Timor is a good example. Paul and I have been in frequent touch to make sure that we keep it out of the presidential campaign, where it would do no good to American or Indonesian interests.” [4]

Yet, despite such efforts, Congress significantly weakened military ties with Jakarta in 1999 and has since prevented reinstatement as a result of public outrage over the TNI’s atrocities in East Timor and elsewhere, and past U.S. support for such. It is this situation that Paul Wolfowitz and the Bush administration are eager to reverse. The tragedy in Indonesia has provided an opportunity to do just that.

Almost all of the tsunami deaths took place in the region where over 160,000 people of a population of 4.2 million have perished. Much of its capital city of Banda Aceh and most of the province's coastal towns and villages are in ruins, with about 500,000 people homeless. Oil-rich Aceh is also the site of a long-standing war for independence, one that has resulted in the deaths of somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians, almost all of them victims of a brutal TNI counterinsurgency campaign against a pro-independence movement that enjoys widespread support. As a result, Jakarta’s brutal efforts to crush the insurgency are unpopular to say the least.

At one of his two press conferences in Jakarta on Sunday, February 16, 2005, Wolfowitz argued, “Everybody recognizes that the most important thing right now is to meet the needs of the people of Aceh,” suggesting that the best way to do so was to increase the TNI’s logistical capacity. Referring to the Bush administration’s post-tsunami decision to grant to Jakarta replacement components for U.S.-produced military transport planes, Wolfowitz asserted that there is “no controversy whatsoever in my country about the fact that we are now providing spare parts to get Indonesian C-130s flying.” [5]

The East Timor Action Network, some human rights groups, and organizations of Acehnese refugees in the United States, however, have communicated to Washington that they do not approve of any assistance from Washington to the TNI-- including that characterized as “non-lethal”--as it inevitably increases the TNI’s repressive capacity. At the same time, they do want the TNI--an institution widely distrusted, if not hated, in Aceh--involved in the distribution of aid in the province. [6]

According to various reports in the weeks following the tsunami, the TNI exploited the crisis and undercut the delivery of humanitarian assistance by refusing to allow local non-governmental organizations to distribute aid channeled through the Indonesian government. In addition, the TNI continued to target the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and its civilian supporters despite the GAM's post-tsunami declaration of a unilateral cease-fire.

Nevertheless, Wolfowitz argued at both press conferences that weak U.S ties with the TNI exacerbate the problems of Indonesia, from the country’s ability to respond to humanitarian crises to ongoing efforts of military reform. “I think if we’re interested in military reform here, and, certainly this Indonesian government is, and our government is, I think we need to reconsider a bit where we are at this point in history,” stated Wolfowitz. Echoing the same baseless arguments he made in the 1990s, Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy claimed that the way to promote the TNI’s supposed efforts to make itself more professional and accountable is to lift Washington’s current restrictions and increase U.S. military sales and training. In this way, so goes the logic, the TNI would be exposed to democratic values and practices.

But just as before, there is no evidence that exposure to the alleged democratic values of the Pentagon improve the conduct of allied militaries abroad; to the contrary, U.S. training often makes them more efficiently brutal. At the same time, there is nothing to indicate that the TNI has changed or is interested in doing so.

Human rights groups report continuing widespread atrocities by the TNI--especially in Aceh and West Papua. An October 2004 report by Amnesty International, for example, writes of “evidence of a disturbing pattern of grave abuses of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights" in Aceh for which Indonesian security forces bear “primary responsibility.” The human rights violations--including extrajudicial executions, torture and the rape of women and girls--have taken place at a scale “so pervasive that there is virtually no part of life in the province which remains untouched,” the Amnesty report says. [7] Meanwhile, Jakarta--partially following Washington’s lead on impunity for international crimes for everyone except official U.S. enemies--has not held any Indonesian political or military personnel responsible for the myriad crimes committed in East Timor or elsewhere.

But such facts have fallen on deaf ears in the Bush administration. On February 27, the U.S. State Department announced the full reinstatement of International Military Education and Training (IMET) funding to Indonesia, stating that the program “will strengthen [Indonesia’s] ongoing democratic progress.” The reinstatement followed on the heels of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s fraudulent certification that the TNI had complied with conditions legislated by Congress. [8]

Such news undoubtedly brought another smile to Paul Wolfowitz’s face. But for those truly concerned with human rights, democracy, and international law, there is nothing to smile about: As it did in the 1980s and 1990s, Wolfowitz’s current recipe for Indonesia will not bring about “reform,” but will only make Washington complicit in the TNI’s war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Joseph Nevins, an assistant professor of geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, is the author of Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary. Cornell University Press will publish his latest book, A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor, in May. This article first appeared in Indonesia Alert!. Thanks to Ben Terrall.

Other Articles by Joseph Nevins

* Mass Murderers and Double Standards of Justice
“Tiger Force” and the Costs Of Forgetting US Crimes in Vietnam

* Beyond the Myth: Remembering Jimmy Carter, the President

* Border Death-Trap: Time to Tear Down America's Berlin Wall


(1) United States Congress. “United States Policy Toward Indonesia,” Hearing before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, 105th Congress, May 7, 1997, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998.

(2) United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Report by the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Bacre Waly Ndiaye, on his Mission to Indonesia and East Timor from 3 to 13 July 1994 (E/CN.4/1995/61/Add.1), November 1, 1994.

(3) Tim Shorrock, “Paul Wolfowitz: A Man to Keep a Close Eye On,” Asia Times Online, March 21, 2001; available at:

(4) Richard Holbrooke, Speech to the Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University, May 13, 2000. Available online at: 

(5) Transcripts of the press conferences are available at: 

(6) See East Timor Action Network press release, “Tsunami Must Not Sweep Away Restrictions on Indonesian Military,” January 13, 2005; available at

(7) Amnesty International, “Indonesia: New Military Operations, Old Patterns of Human Rights Abuses in Aceh,” October 7, 2004; available at:

(8) U.S. Department of State, “Indonesia: Secretary Rice’s Decision to Certify International Military Education and Training” (press statement), February 26, 2005; available at: