EARLIER THIS year, after NATO's bombing campaign persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his marauding troops from Kosovo, President Clinton informed "the people of the world" that a new era had dawned. "Whether you live in Africa, or Central Europe, or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it's within our power to stop it, we will stop it," the president declared.
Now just such a scenario is unfolding. The horror in East Timor is strikingly reminiscent of Serbia's despoliation of Kosovo. Innocent civilians are being rounded up, expelled and killed by soldiers and paramilitaries who do not want East Timor to leave their country of Indonesia. As in Kosovo, whole towns apparently are being leveled, stores and homes are being sacked and burned. Catholic priests, independence leaders and their relatives are reportedly being singled out for assassination.
But the administration's expansive view of its global responsibilities appears to have constricted considerably in the face of this first post-Kosovo challenge. "You know, my daughter has a very messy apartment up in college," Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, said on Wednesday. "Maybe I shouldn't intervene to have that cleaned up."
It's beyond question, as Mr. Berger was no doubt trying to suggest, that the United States cannot intervene everywhere and solve every problem. At one time, you could have made an argument that East Timor was one of those places, no matter how unfortunate, that didn't merit U.S. involvement. It's a remote, relatively impoverished land of only 800,000 or so inhabitants, of far less strategic importance than Indonesia, the current aggressor, which has a population of 213 million and -- as State Department spokesman James Rubin pointed out this week -- sits astride some strategically crucial sea lanes.
But such calculations, whatever their earlier merit, became obsolete once the United Nations sponsored, at Indonesia's invitation, a referendum on independence. Virtually every eligible resident participated in that Aug. 30 vote, and nearly 80 percent voted in favor of independence. By staging that vote, by urging all East Timorese to participate, the United Nations -- with the United States at the fore -- assumed a moral responsibility to see the process through.
Mr. Berger contrasted the "humanitarian problem" of East Timor with the "strong security and strategic consequences" he said were at stake in Kosovo. He also pointed out that Kosovo is "in the middle of Europe," while "I think we have to recognize that Indonesia is in Asia." But surely a theme of the Clinton presidency has been the significance of Asia to America's future. Even more important, East Timor can no longer be viewed as only a human tragedy to be balanced against considerations of sea lanes and bank loans. If the world powers, having staked their prestige on self-determination for East Timor, can so easily allow their will to be flouted, the "security and strategic consequences" will be immense, and they will resonate far beyond Indonesia.