A BREAK in the slaughter is now a live prospect in East Timor as a result of the decision announced yesterday by Indonesian president B. J. Habibie. Or is it? Mr. Habibie invited the United Nations to send an international peacekeeping force of "friendly" nations -- presumably a force heavy with fellow Asians -- to protect the population of East Timor, to restore security and order there and -- of highest importance -- to put into effect the results of the referendum of Aug. 30. In that balloting, an overwhelming 80 percent of the electorate opted for independence from Indonesia, which invaded, terrorized and annexed the former longtime Portuguese colony 25 years ago.
The instant question, however, is whether President Habibie is in a position to enforce his decision on the Indonesian army, which is, depending, the author or the co-conspirator, with the local militias, of the ravaging of East Timor in and after the referendum two weeks ago. Or could it be that his announcement yesterday was calculated by him, or will be exploited by hypernationalist elements in the armed forces, to justify a strategy of delayed and limited implementation? The authorities surely are concerned to derail the economic and other sanctions that many countries, and the United Nations, have threatened to put into play. In the confusion the Indonesian armed forces conceivably could try to consolidate their grip on East Timor and especially to block the return of the tens of thousands of East Timorese who have been driven out of their country since the referendum.
The vagueness and equivocation about peacekeepers that marked the remarks of Gen. Wiranto, chief of the armed forces, can only feed the general suspicion about his political intentions in this crisis. His murderous conduct in East Timor has cost him any claim to the slightest confidence either of the East Timorese or of the international players. Certainly it is far too early to take sanctions off the table; they are essential to see to the proper enforcement of the Habibie commitments.
President Clinton was reported to be pleased by the Habibie peacekeeping pledges, which the United States had a diplomatic hand in eliciting. His national security adviser, Sandy Berger, said yesterday that the American role would be confined to airlift, logistics, transportation and communications. Mr. Berger said he did not envision American participation in "infantry," the branch of military operations most associated with the possibility of casualties. The avoidance of casualties may help knit up American public and congressional support for participation in this operation but can't be the defining goal of any peacekeeping mission.
Leadership of the peacekeepers is falling to Australia, which has its own high-level interests in stabilizing that Pacific quarter, in preempting large inflows of refugees from nearby Timor and, inevitably, in living with Indonesia afterward. That Australia has been a loyal and useful American ally through the 20th century's thick and thin played a part in determining the Clinton administration to join the Timor peacekeeping team, and should have. Cooperation with and deference to local allies ought to be a standard part of American policy in dealing with regional crises.
What is urgent now is Indonesia's prompt and full delivery on President Habibie's promise to undo all that can be undone of Indonesia's atrocities -- atrocities that are not yet at an end. Indonesia met the near-universal call for an independence referendum in East Timor with ghastly killing, looting and burning. Its record puts it under a strict obligation to allow relief and freedom for its victim. Otherwise, it will earn penalties burdening and isolating a country that itself desperately needs the cooperation and company of the rest of the world.