An unchanged landscape in Washington

The administration's confused and negligent policy toward human rights abuses in Indonesia is not likely to change in the wake of the tsunami.

Published January 6, 2005 7:36PM (EST)

Two days after the tsunami struck, President Bush, who had made no public statement about the disaster, was vacationing at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, and a junior spokesman named Trent Duffy was trotted out, well drilled in talking points. The initial offer of U.S. aid was $15 million, Duffy announced, $2 million less than Pedro Martinez, as star pitcher of the Boston Red Sox, was paid last year.

On Dec. 27, U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland criticized wealthy nations for "stinginess." On the morning of Dec. 28 former President Clinton, in London, gave an interview to the BBC's "Today" show, describing the tsunami as a "horror movie" and explaining that international leadership was required for a sustained effort once the "emotional tug" waned. Now the White House spokesman reassured the country that Bush was "clearing some brush this morning; I think he has some friends coming in either today or tomorrow that he enjoys hosting; he's doing some biking and exercising as he normally does, taking walks with the first lady ... " The spokesman also announced that U.S. aid would be increased to $35 million, adding a jibe at Clinton: "The president wanted to be fully briefed on our efforts. He didn't want to make a symbolic statement about 'We feel your pain.'"

Instantly, Bush found himself in a poker game with other nations raising the ante of aid. Spain's offer was twice that of the United States. For Bush, the war on terrorism is the alpha and omega of foreign policy, and it did not occur to him or to his national security team that the tsunami disaster, devastating Muslim regions, provided a golden opportunity for the United States to demonstrate humanitarian motives.

According to State Department sources, in his meetings with foreign leaders Bush is often at a loss when he finishes his agenda on terrorism and sometimes trade. In this crisis, his advisors acted in character: Vice President Cheney was duck hunting on the South Carolina plantation of a major Republican donor; National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice suggested nothing to disturb her boss; and Secretary of State Colin Powell once again lent his reputation, defending Bush as "not stingy."

Eight days after the tsunami, Bush appeared in the White House flanked by his father and Clinton to announce that they would lead a private aid effort and, moreover, that U.S. aid would be increased tenfold, to $350 million. Attacking Clinton hadn't worked, so Bush recruited him to deflect criticism.

The coastline of South Asia has been radically altered by the tsunami, but the political landscape in Washington remains familiar. Behind the stentorian rhetoric about the battle between good and evil lies the neoconservative struggle to remove human rights sanctions against the Indonesian military, which is waging a vicious war against the popular separatist movement on Banda Aceh, the province hardest hit by the tsunami.

The war between the Indonesian military and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) has gone on for more than two decades, and GAM has no known links to al-Qaida or other international terrorist groups. A cease-fire negotiated in 2002, with the involvement of former Gen. Anthony Zinni as U.S. representative, was brutally broken by the military in May 2003.

The Indonesian military is a virtual state within a state, separate from civil society, unaccountable for its widespread human rights violations and criminal activities, including funding local terrorists in order to claim a role for itself in the war on terrorism, according to U.S. Senate sources. After its long war of ethnic cleansing against East Timor concluded with independence (as a result of international diplomatic intervention), the military was determined not to lose Banda Aceh or even grant it relative autonomy.

In its war there, the military has mimicked the language of the U.S. war on terrorism and the Iraq war, calling its operation "shock and awe," targeting the population as terrorists or terrorist supporters and expelling all international observers, including the United Nations, from the region. Through interviews with refugees, Human Rights Watch in a September 2004 report documented extensive torture and abuse.

At best, Bush administration policy toward Indonesia has been conflicted, confused and negligent. The leading neoconservative at the Pentagon, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, asserts himself as the administration's chief authority, and has relentlessly tried to overthrow U.S. restrictions on aid to and relations with the Indonesian military. His pressure galvanized the administration to force a vote in November 2004 in Congress, which upheld the sanctions in place since the 1992 assault on East Timor.

The neoconservatives' thrust is complicated but undeterred by the Indonesian military's obstruction of the FBI's investigation of the murder of two American businessmen at the Freeport mine on Papua New Guinea in 2002, killings that appear to implicate the military. When the State Department issued its human rights report in 2004 detailing Indonesia's abysmal record, a Foreign Ministry spokesman replied with impunity: "The U.S. government does not have the moral authority to assess or act as a judge of other countries, including Indonesia, on human rights, especially after the abuse scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison."

On his tour of Banda Aceh, Powell remarked on the devastation -- "never seen anything like this" -- but made no determined effort to restore the cease-fire. Meanwhile, GAM reports that the Indonesia military is using the catastrophe to launch a new offensive. "The Indonesians get the message when you have no high-level condemnation of what they're doing," Tom Malinowski, Washington advocate for Human Rights Watch, told me. Sources in the Senate say that they expect a renewed effort soon by Wolfowitz against sanctions.

In the name of the war on terrorism, neoconservatives attempt to bolster Indonesia's repressive military, which flings the Bush administration's sins back in its face. In the "march of freedom," human rights are cast to the side. The absence of moral clarity is matched by the absence of strategic clarity.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

MORE FROM Sidney Blumenthal

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dick Cheney Earthquakes Natural Disasters Neoconservatism