East Timor is now the latest test of when to use military might for
Americans are once again witnessing systematic murders and mass expulsions of an ethnic minority in a remote backwater on the other side of the world.
And again, they and their government are having to balance moral imperative against national interest in deciding where, how, and when history's mightiest nation should use its unmatched military power to halt large-scale human suffering.
The onslaught by pro-Indonesia militias against the people of East Timor is the current case in point (semblance of order restored, page 6). But the question of humanitarian intervention has resurfaced steadily since the 1993 debacle in Somalia. It has raged through genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and this year's Kosovo crisis, affecting ties with allies and rivals, shaping domestic political deliberations, and clawing at the national conscience. And it is likely to be an issue in next year's presidential election.
"The question is the most difficult question in American foreign policy," says Lee Hamilton, the former top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, who heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "It's going to confront us in the years ahead simply because of our unique intervention capabilities."
The Clinton administration is worried that those capabilities may now be overstretched, with American forces committed in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq and braced in Northeast Asia amid grave tensions over North Korea and Taiwan.
It sees the East Timor crisis as an opportunity for other nations to share the burden of ensuring global stability. So while throwing its weight behind the idea of a United Nations-backed force for East Timor led by Australia and Malaysia, the administration rules out any role for the American military, save for logistics and other support functions.
"We have to recognize ... that the Indonesians will respond much better to a solution that is dominated by the Asians," and not by America, says National Security Adviser Samuel Berger.