Coming to Terms With Holbrooke

“You cannot deal with the future unless you also come to terms with the past,” Richard Holbrooke, who died on Dec. 13, once said. And in terms of Holbrooke’s past, he has received largely glowing reviews in the corridors of power. President Obama referred to him, for example, as “a true giant of American foreign policy.” Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called him “the consummate diplomat, [one] able to stare down dictators,” while Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times opined that he was “above all . . .  a man of heart.”

What the establishment chorus of praise misses is the impact on those on the receiving end of the specific policies Holbrooke crafted and the U.S. global power that he long championed. Among other places, East Timor continues to suffer the effects of Holbrooke’s work. Coming to terms with that sordid past and its present-day manifestations is a necessary part of any effort to bring about a better future in East Timor, the United States, and far beyond.

Holbrooke was in Jakarta, Indonesia on Nov. 21, 1999, when he asserted the need to address the past for the benefit of posterity. The man who was then the Clinton administration’s U.N. ambassador was calling upon that country’s government to account for its crimes in East Timor.

The visit came on the heels of a horrific campaign of terror and destruction by Indonesia’s military (TNI) in East Timor. Following the announcement that the population of the illegally occupied territory had voted overwhelmingly for independence in an Aug. 30, 1999, UN-run ballot, the TNI and its militia proxies unleashed a wave of ghastly violence. Over a few weeks, they laid waste to an estimated 80 percent of the territory’s buildings and infrastructure, forcibly deported about 250,000 people (about a quarter of the population) to Indonesia, raped untold numbers of women and girls, and killed upwards of 1,000 people.

This was only the final act of almost 24 years of a brutal Indonesian occupation. According to East Timor’s official truth commission, Indonesia’s aggression and colonization resulted in many tens of thousands of East Timorese deaths, widespread sexual violence, and systematic dispossession of the country’s population.

It was in this context that Holbrooke declared to his Jakarta audience that “Americans believe profoundly in accountability,” calling it “one of the two or three keys to democracy.” When asked what the extent of the accountability should be, Holbrooke drew a comparison to the U.S. investigation of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, which eventually implicated the president: “[W]hen I talk about accountability, Americans mean full accountability,” he explained.

Had Holbrooke truly meant what he said, accountability would have gone far beyond Indonesia’s shores.


It was the Ford administration that gave Indonesia’s Suharto the green light for the U.S.-armed and ?trained TNI to launch a full-scale invasion of tiny East Timor on Dec. 7, 1975. And it was Richard Holbrooke, along with the bureau he headed in the Department of State, who was the primary architect of U.S. policy toward East Timor during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

It was a time when the White House substantially increased U.S. military aid to Jakarta despite U.N. resolutions condemning Indonesia’s invasion, calling for a prompt withdrawal, and asserting East Timor’s right to self-determination. It was also a time when Australia’s Parliament Legislative Research Service described the situation in East Timor as “indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history.”

Yet, despite such horrors and his position in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, Holbrooke typically elected not to participate in Congressional hearings that dealt with East Timor. As one reporter explained regarding his failure to show up at one in 1980, “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.” (1)

In March 1977, Holbrooke told Australian diplomat James Dunn that Indonesia’s geographical location and oil wealth were “of considerable strategic importance to the U.S. As we see it,” Holbrooke explained, “the Suharto regime is the best of possible alternatives, and we will do nothing to destabilize it.” In other words, the Carter administration would not support East Timor, but would, instead of “staring down” Indonesia’s dictator, back him?with weapons, financial assistance, and diplomatic cover. Notwithstanding the horrific results of this policy, Holbrooke had the temerity to proclaim in a 1979 prepared statement to Congress that “[t]he welfare of the Timorese people is the major objective of our policy toward East Timor.” (2)

Just as he had lied to Congress in 1979, Holbrooke misled his listeners in Jakarta twenty years later. Indeed, he subsequently openly bragged about burying discussion of East Timor.

The intentional nature of this “forgetting” 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. Introducing him was Paul Wolfowitz, then-dean of the university’s School for Advanced International Studies. Like Holbrooke, Wolfowitz played a key role in formulating U.S. policy toward Indonesia and East Timor, succeeding him as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

After Wolfowitz’s flowery welcome, Holbrooke praised the former ambassador to Jakarta (under Reagan) 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.” (3)


Given such bipartisan efforts, it is hardly surprising that East Timor’s truth commission report?and its call for an international tribunal, and reparations and an apology by countries that supported Indonesia’s crimes?has been effectively buried in the United States. Washington (and its Western allies) have ignored the report and its recommendations, and the mainstream media, following this official lead, has paid them little heed.

Likewise, it is hardly surprising that none of this unflattering information has found its way into the mainstream media coverage of Holbrooke’s death. What is astonishing is that The Nation magazine’s Barbara Crossette did not mention Holbrooke’s disgraceful role in East Timor?nor, as his first post-college stint, his involvement in the criminal U.S. war effort in Vietnam (among other reprehensible activities).

In a rather glowing obituary, The Nation’s United Nations correspondent characterized Holbrooke as “a problem solver,” as someone “restless, kinetic and never reluctant to break diplomatic routines,” and with “achievements that were not often widely recognized.”?such as “ending the pariah status of Israel” within the United Nations.

The fawning coverage of Holbrooke is illustrative of the depth to which runs what Andrew Bacevich calls, in Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, the American credo. It is a set of beliefs that asserts that the job of the United States is “to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.” It sees the world in generally black and white terms, with obvious forces of good?the United States and its allies?and opposing nefarious forces. This credo dovetails with a “scared trinity” of convictions that underlie U.S. military practice: international peace and order require a global American military presence, a military able to project power globally, and one that intervenes globally to counter existing or anticipated threats.  The credo-trinity consensus creates the foundation of the “rules” Washington follows and draws upon to justify what it does, Bacevich asserts, while “precluding the intrusion of aberrant thinking” that could lead to vibrant debate.

Throughout his storied career carrying water for the U.S. empire, Holbrook showed himself to be a firm believer in, and proponent of, these “rules” and the associated ugly global status quo?a highly unequal world order from which the United States as a whole derives disproportionate benefit. Upholding and enhancing this status quo wouldn’t be possible without people like Richard Holbrooke, and without a willingness to deploy myriad forms of violence.


Near the end of his gushing piece on Holbrooke, Nicholas Kristof writes of him as a devoted family man, one who cared deeply about his wife and children. He was also, he reports, “a tireless advocate . . .  of educating girls and bringing women out of the margins of society into the mainstream.”

Like all human beings, Holbrooke was undoubtedly a person of complexity and contradictions. Nonetheless, he always stayed true to the overriding imperatives of the various U.S. administrations he served, and the underlying bipartisan ideology that embraces the Washington rules. Perhaps this is why he proved unable or unwilling to extend his care and advocacy to places like East Timor. Today one of the world’s poorest countries, it is a place where, according to a 2006 United Nations Development Programme report, 90 out of 1,000 children there die before their first birthday, half the population is illiterate, 64 percent suffers from food insecurity, half lack access to safe drinking water, and 40 percent live below the official poverty line, defined by an income of 55 cents a day.

The lives behind these numbers are, in no small part, Richard Holbrooke’s legacy.

Andrew Bacevich provides some potential insight into what drove Holbrooke. Opening his book, the retired U.S. Army colonel and now professor of international relations at Boston University writes of himself, and his own political-intellectual journey from hardcore Cold Warrior to deep critic of U.S. militarism and empire: “Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me. I know. A young man in a hurry knows what he wants and where he’s headed; when it comes to looking back or entertaining heretical thoughts, he has neither the time nor the inclination. All that counts is he is going somewhere. Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility.”

Like the U.S. government he served, Holbrooke was someone with “worldly ambition”?of the imperial variety. Graduating from Brown University at 21, he immediately entered the U.S. Foreign Service and went on to work in and on Vietnam for six years. At age 35, he became the youngest person in U.S. history to ever hold the position of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. And in his last post, he served as the Obama administration’s “special representative” on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As has been widely reported, Holbrooke’s final words to his doctor before going into a surgery from which he never recovered were “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” While the White House has argued that he was joking, perhaps Holbrooke’s worldly ambition was beginning to wane due to the clarity that illness or near-death can sometimes produce, and he began to have deep remorse for some of his decisions. While we cannot know for sure why he said what he did, let us take his words to heart and put an end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan as a way of coming to terms with an ugly past and its inextricably linked violent present.

JOSEPH NEVINS is a geography professor at Vassar College. Among his books are A Not-so-distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor, and Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid.

Nicholas Kristof piece:

Barbara Crossette piece:


(1) Daniel Southerland, “US Role in Plight of Timor: An Issue that Won’t Go Away,” The Christian Science Monitor, March 6, 1980: 7.

(2) United States Congress, House of Representatives, “Famine Relief for East Timor,” Hearing before the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, December 4, 1979: 17.

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