Iraq & Timor: reply to Bob G and Nick F

Tom O'Lincoln suarsos at
Sat Aug 23 17:50:25 MDT 2003

Dear Bob and Nick

It's complicated replying to you both, since we're at three different
points of the compass. You both supported Australian/UN intervention in
East Timor; I did not.  Nick however thinks Australia is imperialist; Bob
thinks "the proposition that Australia is primarily an imperialist power is
methodological gibberish". Both of you seem to think the UN is sometimes
"pro-imperialist", but not always.

This brings us to the first difference. I think both are imperialist (not
just "pro-imperialist"), and I don't think you can just turn the
imperialist features off and on - because imperialism is a *system*.

Bob tells me Sergio De Mello talked about addressing poverty; I believe it.
So does World Bank president James Wolfensohn; indeed he goes and sits on
dirt floors and talks to the poor direct. OK, so he's not Rumsfeld; yet I
continue to regard the World Bank as an imperialist institution, no matter
how much the wolf hides within the sheep's clothing of humanitarian aid.
It's not about evil individuals, it's about the system.

Nick says "the difference between the role of the UN in East Timor and Iraq undeniable". Is it? You might think that in a sense, the role of the
Australian *troops* is different: there is no  resistance in ET, so there
is no violence against the general populace. But I'd say the role of the UN
itself is much the same: to provide a civilian underpinning to the
occupation. And the purpose of this occupation is, in Nick's own words, to
"to safeguard continuing imperialist economic exploitation."

True, Nick also thinks it has another side: "In [East Timor] the normally
pro-imperialist UN found itself abetting real independence and the ability
of working people's organisations and the left to organise (as oppose to
being exterminated which was the only other option").  But as I have
pointed out on this list before, the UN's own data show that this
"extermination" is a myth. The TNI certainly wrecked the economy and
infrastructure on the way out, but was not carrying out mass killings as
claimed at the time. The death toll during the mid-99 crisis seems to have
been around 1000-1500.

Before Bob accuses me of heartlessness, let me say immediately that 1500 is
horrible enough. But we also have to remember that the Australian troops
conspicuously didn't arrive till the Indonesians and their "militia" had
plenty of time to finish the killing; and that Cosgrove himself made it
clear there was close collaboration between the TNI and his forces. Thus
there is a reasonable case to blame Australia for some of the killing.

"Normally pro-imperialist UN?" Unless you think the Australian state and
its military temporarily ceased to be imperialist during 1999, the UN was
"pro-imperialist" at that time too. What you really seem to think is that
imperialism itself became temporarily nice - under the pressure of mass
struggle etc. I think that's unrealistic; but I will not go over old

As for the right to organise, yes the change of masters made a difference.
How great a difference is unclear, given Indonesia now also allows some
right to organise. But then some civil liberties have been restored in
Kabul, too, and women there seem to have more rights than before (though
not outside the capital). If the Americans  can consolidate their position,
they may well allow trade unions to operate in Baghdad, and you may have
noticed that the Shi'ites in Iraq are now able to organise mass rallies,
unlike under Saddam. In such cases of course we welcome and use the space
that opens up. But it's not grounds to support - let alone demand -
imperialist intervention, because the more ground imperialism gains
anywhere, the worse it is going to be *overall* for all the world's working

Bob writes: "The Timor independence movement ... came to power in a complex
series of events, of which the trigger point was the heroic vote of the
Timorese masses for independence."

Heroic indeed, but the vote was expected. The trigger point was the
collapse of the Suharto regime, and the new president's attempt to
liquidate the East Timor issue quickly. The military resisted with a
scorched earth policy. Personally I suspect this was because the local
military was losing its business interests - they don't get most of their
budget from the government, so they have to raise it in other ways. Anyway,
the Australian government decided Jakarta could no longer deliver stability
in East Timor, so they sent in their own troops.

You put it this way: "the evolution of events forced a previously reluctant
US and Australian imperialist military to point their bayonets at the
Indonesian military as the least dangerous solution from their point of
view to what had become a hopeless problem for imperialist politics." Not
so different really, except that elsewhere you describe as gibberish the
idea that Australia is imperialist. Yet they were Australian bayonets, were
they not?

You accuse me of thinking Horta "has always been a kind of imperialist
stooge". Not at all --  in fact I called him a "one-time anti-imperialist".
But now that is precisely what he is. On 7 May 2000 he told ABC Radio's
"Background Briefing Program" that "a foreign investor wishing to invest
here and create jobs in the process,and at the same time generate export
and a foreign exchange income for East Timor should not pay any tax at

You say  the "current set-up in East Timor ... beats the hell out of the
current Indonesian occupation of Aceh and West Papua." Yes it does, but
have you noticed that Horta is not campaigning for independence for either
Aceh or West Papua? Because he is now serving imperialism, unpalatable
though that fact might be. I also notice you are not calling for Australian
troops to intervene in Aceh - which is good (because Australian imperialism
is rampant enough around the region right now without us egging them on)
but inconsistent to say the least.

You declare yourself "opposed to the presence of the UN in Iraq in any
governing or occupying role. I'm emphatically NOT opposed to the presence
of the UN in a role of delivering civilian aid." And I guess that's how
most people would see it.

But there is one little problem. The Americans want the UN to come in
precisely to legitimise the occupation and reduce pressure from US public
opinion. You can't separate the two things, which is why the Baghdad
bombing is different to the WTC or the Bali bombing. It's true there is
some common ground, and you rightly point to Penny Ryan's fate. But this
was not a simple attack on a "soft" civilian target. It was aimed at one of
the Americans' key manoeuvres to try to consolidate their grip.

Like you, I sympathise with personal grief. I did not, for example,
criticise Vanessa Hearmann for that. Even though De Mello is an imperialist
figure, that doesn't mean he's personally evil, and I have had some grim
moments myself imagining him trapped in the rubble. Those who knew him are
entitled to weep. At the same time, we should remember that Howard and his
ilk have not shown the same grief for the Iraqis killed and maimed by
imperialist bombs. That's because these politicians have taken sides - the
wrong side - and we are entitled to be angry at their choice and even, dare
I say, use "insensitive" language about it.

Like you, I oppose terrorism as a political method. Unlike you seem to do,
I do not equate the terror of the oppressed with that of the oppressors.

I think you're on dangerous grounds when you call for an "absolutely
unequivocal stance against such primitive, medieval methods as the
September 11 bombing, the Bali bombing, and this particular atrocity in
Iraq." An *unequivocal* denunciation is just what the Murdoch press
demands; as for me, I think we should place the main blame on imperialism.
In any case there is nothing "medieval" about it; it is actually a very
modern phenomenon: the WTC bombers were not feudal relics, and neither are
the Palestinian suicide bombers. It's not even clear that the Baghdad
bombers were "fundamentalists" at all - as I write, the media are saying
they may be linked to Saddam's secret police. Your language feeds into the
imperialist "orientalism" that portrays everyone in the Middle East as


Now let me say something about Vanessa Hearmann's letter. I was insensitive
in how I reacted, but there is an issue all the same. Here's the passage I

"During that time I accompanied him and his staff  on a wide range of tasks
and a number of trips to regional areas - including meeting political
parties and women running as candidates for office ... It was a fascinating
and very instructive experience to work with Sergio, as the UN's highest
officeholder in East Timor."

If you think the UN's role in East Timor is benign, I guess this is OK. If
you think its role is "to safeguard continuing imperialist economic
exploitation," then surely his touring around networking is not so
harmless, and taking "instruction" from "the UN's highest officeholder" is
rather problematic.

I'll leave it there except for one explanation.  I mostly interact with
this list from work, using webmail, so I seldom have the opportunity to
write (or read) at great length. Most of the time it's either short grabs
or nothing. Such is life.


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