WASHINGTON — Sometimes you have to wonder if the Clinton administration is out to give the cause of international human rights a bad name.
Twice this year, the administration has set out--rightly and commendably--to protect an essentially helpless group of people overseas from being persecuted and uprooted. The first time, it was the Albanians of Kosovo; over the last few weeks, it has been the people of East Timor.
But both efforts have been disastrously flawed by the administration's tendency to misread the foreign leaders with whom it was doing business. It almost seems as though President Clinton and his national security advisor, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, assume the rest of the world is governed by reasonable, genial, American-style politicians and trade lawyers.
Last spring, the administration believed wrongly that mere threats of force--or, at worst, a couple of days of NATO air power--would force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to back down. Instead, Milosevic systematically pushed the Albanians out of Kosovo and fought a military campaign for more than two months before yielding.
In East Timor, the Clinton administration has misjudged the Indonesian army. For many months now, it has appealed to the good faith and wisdom of Indonesian military leaders to permit a referendum on independence in East Timor and then to abide by the results.
When the Timorese voted for independence, armed militias began terrorizing the population. The Clinton administration at first attributed the problem to rogue elements within the armed forces, not to the military leadership itself. Only belatedly did it realize that the problems went right to the top and that the military's resistance to East Timor's independence was far more pervasive than it had earlier thought.
The upshot: The Timorese, who so recently turned out to vote in an election, have been running or hiding for their lives. By Indonesian estimates, more than 200,000 of the 800,000 people of East Timor have fled across the border into Indonesian West Timor. Another 200,000 or so are refugees inside East Timor.
This disaster may not yet be over. In fact, it may become even more serious.
Some human rights officials and Western diplomats have been warning for weeks that the Indonesian military was preparing to carry out what was called "Plan B"--a program to prevent the separation of East Timor even if the Timorese voted for independence.
The recent campaign by the militias to drive out the population may be only the first part of Plan B. The second part would be a protracted war of attrition by the army-backed militias from bases in West Timor against the United Nations forces in East Timor.
Before departing from East Timor this week, Maj. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri, the commander of Indonesian forces in the territory, warned that the U.N. forces should not venture across the borders into West Timor against the militias.
If the militias can inflict significant casualties on the U.N. forces, Australia would probably have to increase its troop presence in East Timor. If that didn't work, Australia could well ask the United States for combat troops, in addition to the logistical and intelligence support America is now providing.
The Clinton administration has been slow to foresee what might happen. Critics say the Pentagon should have been ordered early on to prepare various options for the use of force.
"These problems have been on the horizon for months," says Richard L. Armitage, a former senior Pentagon official. "It would be a tragedy to find out after all this is over that CINCPAC [the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific] hadn't privately been developing various force packages for contingencies."
The underlying problem is the same one that arose within the administration during Kosovo this year and with Bosnia several years ago: The Pentagon is extremely reluctant to get involved in missions to help keep the peace or to prevent large-scale human rights abuses.
The U.S. military clings to the "Weinberger doctrine." In 1984, then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger proposed that American troops should not be committed overseas unless vital U.S. interests were at stake and the objectives were clearly defined and limited--and then only if overwhelming force was used to achieve the objective.
These ideas are often hard to reconcile with what is now called the "Clinton doctrine"--the notion the U.S. and its allies will intervene where necessary to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing.
In short, the turmoil in East Timor is to some extent the outgrowth of tensions and slip-ups within the Clinton administration's foreign-policy apparatus.
The president and his top advisors underestimate the involvement and tenacity of foreign leaders in carrying out campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Then, when taken by surprise, the administration has trouble persuading the Pentagon to use force on behalf of the "Clinton doctrine."
The administration's ideals are admirable, but it can't realize them when the execution of its policies is so flawed.
Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.