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January 5, 2007

A Single Standard for Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein


by Joseph Nevins
During the same week that former U.S. president Gerald Ford passed away, Iraqi authorities executed Saddam Hussein. As one might expect, official Washington's reactions to the two events were radically different.

President Bush expressed sadness in the wake of Ford's death, calling the former president a "great man" while Representative Nancy Pelosi voiced respect for Ford's "fair and reliable leadership." By contrast, George Bush welcomed Hussein's execution, characterizing it as "an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy," and Senator Joseph Biden, incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared with satisfaction that "Iraq has . . . rid the world of a tyrant."

On the surface, it makes sense to judge the two men in such divergent ways. After all, an Iraqi court convicted Hussein of a crime against humanity for ordering the killing of 148 Shi'ite villagers, only one of many atrocities he oversaw while ruling Iraq. Gerald Ford, to the contrary, was never even indicted for any such crime. But it turns out that this distinction reflects a double standard for judging similar conduct. Ford, too, was responsible for mass murder – in East Timor – and basic justice and honesty demands that he be remembered for it.

On Dec. 6, 1975, Ford and Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state, were in Jakarta, Indonesia to meet the country's dictator, General Suharto. Ford was fully cognizant of Indonesia's plans to launch an imminent invasion of the former Portuguese Timor. According to declassified documents published by the Washington-based National Security Archive, Ford assured Suharto that with regard to East Timor, "[We] will not press you on the issue. We understand . . . the intentions you have."

Suharto needed Washington's green light due to a 1958 agreement that prohibited Indonesia from using U.S.-origin weaponry, which made up 90% of Jakarta's arsenal, except for "legitimate national self-defense." For this reason Kissinger suggested that the invasion be framed as self-defense, thus circumventing any legal obstacles.

Kissinger then expressed understanding for Indonesia's "need to move quickly" and advised "that it would be better if it were done after we [he and Ford] returned [to the United States]." About 14 hours after their departure, Indonesian forces invaded neighboring East Timor.

While Indonesian forces massacred civilians during the first hours of the Dec. 7 invasion, Ford spoke at the University of Hawaii. There, he declared his commitment to a "Pacific doctrine of peace with all and hostility toward none," and spoke of an Asia "where people are free from the threat of foreign aggression."

Ford and his White House successors helped make sure that his lofty vision was not realized in Indonesia-ravaged East Timor. According to the now-independent country's truth commission report, released late last year, Indonesia's war and illegal occupation resulted in many tens of thousands of East Timorese deaths, widespread rape and sexual enslavement of women and girls, and, in the waning days of Jakarta's presence, systematic destruction of the territory's buildings and infrastructure. Today, East Timor is one of the world's poorest countries.

Over the almost 24 years of Indonesian rule, Democratic and Republican administrations alike provided invaluable diplomatic cover and billions of dollars' worth of weapons, military equipment and training, and economic aid to Jakarta. For such reasons the truth commission report characterizes U.S. assistance as "fundamental" to the invasion and occupation, and calls upon Washington to apologize and pay reparations to East Timor.

Washington's considerable share of the blame for East Timor's plight does not rest solely at Ford's feet. But it was Gerald Ford that opened the door to this dreadful chapter in history.

There is little doubt that Ford's authorization was key to Indonesia's invasion. Intelligence and diplomatic documents reveal that Jakarta was so worried about how the U.S. would react to its aggression that Suharto had vetoed earlier plans to invade. His administration had previously warned Indonesia against using American weaponry in any planned aggression. But any reservations that the administration may have had about the employment of U.S. weaponry seem to have disappeared by Dec. 6, 1975, with horrific results for the people of East Timor.

One week after the meeting in Jakarta, Ford sent Suharto a package of golf balls as "a personal gift." In the months that followed, his U.N. ambassador prevented the United Nations from taking effective steps to compel Jakarta to end its aggression. Later in 1976, Ford's administration shipped a squadron of U.S. OV-10 "Bronco" ground-attack planes to Indonesia's military, ones ideal for counterinsurgency of the type it was waging in East Timor.

We in the United States, and people throughout the world, should make these events a central part of our collective memory of Ford's presidency – for the sake of the victims and the rule of law – just as Saddam Hussein will justifiably be remembered for his role in crimes against humanity.

 

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Joseph Nevins is an assistant professor of geography at Vassar College, and the author of A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor (Cornell University Press, 2005).

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