‘So much for the ANZUS Treaty’

The East Timor crisis and treaty considerations

“The extent to which the US accepts a commitment will always depend upon US judgement regarding its own interest at the time. Much would depend on circumstances of the day.”

Australian Strategic Analysis and Defence Policy Objectives, September 1976.


On the morning of the 20th of September 1999, the charred remains of Dili faced out toward Atauro Island whose silhouette was gradually mutated by the decks of a group of landing craft speeding towards the harbour. Among them the HMAS Tobruk and the HMAS Brunei carrying an international force draped in the symbolism of Australian WW2 efforts in both traditional and forward defence. The East Timor crisis in then Prime Minister John Howard’s words was not only the most decisive foreign policy shift in his tenure, but possibly the history of Australia.[1] Seemingly within a year and a half, the Howard government had overturned a twenty-five year policy of supporting Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor and what some have termed a quarter-century of Indonesian ‘appeasement’.[2] In all the spectacle of Australia taking the lead in a multinational expeditionary force that was possibly facing down the barrel of a gun held by ‘the bully next door’,[3] academia has largely neglected the undercard – Australian and American relations. The East Timor crisis made the differences in the understanding of the ANZUS treaty painfully clear, not only between Australia and the United States, but indeed between Australian politicians and strategic thinkers.

This essay will explore the United States’ refusal to contribute ground forces to the INTERFET operation, its causes, the reaction it provoked, and importantly, its precedent. The essay will argue that the 1963 Malaysia crisis marked a point of departure between the Australian public and their elected representatives, and the strategic and institutional defence communities in their respective understandings of the ANZUS treaty that the East Timor crisis eventually laid bare. To the contrary it will be shown the office of the President of the United States remained in step with the relevant strategic analysts throughout the same period.


The success of the INTERFET operation was lauded by the international community, the Australian public, and the majority of the Australian government. For all of John Howard’s admiration and active glorification of the Anzac myth, he now had his own band of 5,500 men and women whom he could point to and say they embody “the values that are most important to the Australian community”.[4] This was a band of Australians removed from the tethers of empire that plagued the memory and reconstruction of the Anzac myth,[5] and one that had fought in a popular conflict – spared the contempt that diggers faced upon their return from the Vietnam War.

John Howard mingling with members of the 3rd Battalion, 3RAR before their departure.

It is perhaps too early to identify any trends in the academia about the dynamics that were at play between Australia and the United States during the East Timor crisis, but there are certainly two camps into which most work can be roughly generalised. The first is the one described above by John Howard, that the INTERFET operation was a significant moment in Australian independence, a strategic success, and a victory that showed how well the alliance works. Paul Kelly in his canonical March of the Patriots wrote “the crisis became an example of Australia-American alliance cooperation and not the disaster often depicted”.[6] For Kelly, and others in this camp, the alliance suffered an “initial jolt” when the US refused to provide ‘boots on the ground’, but quickly re-calibrated to the point where Howard writes that by the time the INTERFET force was formalised, he and President Clinton were “singing from the same hymn sheet”.[7] Andrew Shearer argued “the absence of US ground troops in East Timor may have been a benefit” in the sense that Australian leadership of INTERFET showed Washington that Australia was a capable and worthwhile friend in the region, thus giving Australia a new weight that Howard said led to a significant influence over the US in some regards.[8]

The issue in the historiography is that most of the scholars who criticise the players outlined above, criticise them at the level of Indonesian policy objectives or morality. Former military advisor Clinton Fernades is among the most prominent voices in this camp who in his book Reluctant Saviour argues that the government was bowing to significant popular pressure when they launched INTERFET, and not to a sense of moral obligation. John Birmingham penned a very influential essay for The Quarterly Magazine titled ‘Appeasing Jakarta’ casting criticism over successive Australian governments from Whitlam onward for putting relations with Indonesia above human rights.[9] These accounts and the many others like them largely gloss over the alliance aspect of the crisis. Similarly, the East Timor episode is overshadowed in the literature specifically about ‘the Howard doctrine’ of American relations, caricatured by ‘minor embarrassments’ and subsumed by the Iraq war. Cavan Hogue argues that the episode just reaffirmed the status quo of the alliance whereby the US holds all the cards,[10] whereas more controversial accounts such as that by Robert Garran see the issue more in terms of personal relations, whereby when George Bush became president, Australia was sent down the path of ‘true belief’ in his doctrines.[11] This essay will now endeavour to colour the gap in alliance studies where East Timor is concerned, and situate its events as the capitulation of a schism between the political and strategic elite that traces back to the 1963 Malaysian crisis.


That many Australian leaders and many in the Australian press were truly shocked when the United States refused to contribute ground troops to INTERFET speaks volumes about the public and political perception of the US alliance. John Howard wrote in his autobiography “I wanted the Americans involved. It was an instinctive reaction… Whenever the Americans had been involved in a major operation, they had had always turned to Australia seeking a contribution. We had been willing to make it.”[12], [13]  He described his reaction as one of “great disappointment” when President Clinton refused him this on the 6th of September.[14] At the same time the Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer was quoted in The Australian as saying “…it has been enormously difficult to get the Americans to give us any commitments on troops and logistics support…Australians would be very disappointed if the United States decided against participating”.[15] Downer’s comments in the Australian media, as well as a similarly provocative interview on CNN earned him a call from the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in which she reproached him for his language.[16]

The government’s concern was twofold. First, they wanted American troops in the force to act as a ‘trip wire’ deterrent for the Indonesian elements of the militias in East Timor, but secondly, Howard had won the 1998 election on a platform that included strengthening the alliance. The prime minister had already been left red-faced earlier in the year when he visited Seattle for a WTO meeting and unsuccessfully lobbied President Clinton to lift restrictive and targeted importation restrictions on Australian lamb. In this view American boots on East Timorese soil would do as much to allay domestic concern about the health of the alliance as they would deter the “clear and present danger” the INTERFET force would face.[17]  The eventual diplomatic support of the US was crucial in acquiescing Indonesia on a UN-backed force, and US logistical support was paramount in the operation of this force, but these successes provide only a retrospective remedy to the understanding deficit between the Americans and Australians.

The post-Cold-War United States that Australia was dealing with was a changed entity. Unfavourable experiences in the Gulf, Somalia, and Kosovo were always going to be a major factor regarding their participation in INTERFET. Domestic fatigue was weighing on the Clinton administration. The images of American bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 were not ones the American people wanted repeated. Although action in Kosovo was supported by the public, their support in this regard was tenuous. The US government took note of public caution and instilled it in their operations; striking initial considerations of a ground force in Kosovo and lifting the flight height of American aircraft to almost ineffectual levels to avoid American casualties.[18] Bill Clinton explained this to John Howard in the September 6 phone call.

Although the US saw the East Timor crisis as a threat to the stability of the region, they were no longer looking at South East Asia through the ideological lens of decades past.[19] As such there was no real need to put American lives at risk if there were regional actors already pledged to perform this function. The crudest expression of this attitude came from Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger when he briefed the press at the Auckland APEC summit of September 1999. Responding to a journalist asking why the US was so active in Kosovo and not East Timor, Berger replied: “my daughter has a very messy apartment up in college, maybe I shouldn’t intervene to have that cleaned up.”[20] Berger’s apparent trivialisation of the crisis further aggravated the Australian press, but his formulation was much clearer a few moments after he delivered the infamous line when he elaborated that “I think we have to recognise that Indonesia is in Asia; that the Indonesians will respond much better to a solution here that is dominated by Asians and not by the United States.”[21]


The responses of the Australian political elite and the press were completely out of step with the strategic community, and this is in large part due to harsh lessons learnt in the 1950s and 1960s. In the first half of the latter decade, Australia saw the actualisation of the US-backed Indonesian annexation of West Papua despite Australian protests in 1962, and a franker assessment of the ANZUS treaty from the US camp in response to Indonesia’s open hostility to the formation of Malaysia in 1963. In the first instance Australia was weary of sharing a land border with the Indonesians and incessantly lobbied the US to delay any withdrawal of support for the Netherlands in the territory of West Papua.[22] As Australia’s fears came to fruition and the annexation was underway, Indonesia was issuing extremely thinly veiled threats of violence against the formation of Malaysia. Prime Minister Menzies and his government feared that the outbreak of confrontation could lead to Indonesian aggression in Australian New Guinea across the new land border.[23]

The period was a painful one for Australian strategists and policy-makers that would leave a lasting imprint on the Australian strategic community. The episode culminated in President Kennedy telling then External Affairs Minister Sir Garfield Barwick “the American people have forgotten ANZUS and are not at the moment prepared for a situation involving the United States.”[24] The commitment that Barwick was able to solicit from the US was dressed down almost to the point of irrelevance. The ANZUS commitments of the US would only come into play if Australian forces were attacked openly in a conventional manner in the Malaysian area; there would only be air, naval and logistical support; and any action would still be subject to Article IV of the treaty – necessitating congressional approval.[25] Given the jungle terrain in Malaysia and Australian New Guinea, the guerrilla nature of Indonesian elements in the region, and US fears of activating Sukarno’s flirtations with Communism, this was highly unlikely.[26] Menzies’ public language following this memorandum was cautiously misleading. He told the press  the next month that “the defence of Australian New Guinea and Papua [is] regarded by us in the same way as the defence of our mainland and any overt attack on it would be resisted in the same way…it is well understood and agreed that should such an event occur, ANZUS would operate [emphasis added].”[27]

Kennedy Barwick
Sir Garfield Barwick (left) and President Kennedy sharing a lighter moment for the cameras on October 17, 1963.

Kennedy’s language, linking the ANZUS treaty to domestic considerations flew red flags in the strategic community, and these can be seen to endure up to and including the East Timor crisis.  In the public sphere the burgeoning closeness of the alliance during the Vietnam War-era and the elation of the special relationship between Harold Holt and Lyndon Baines Johnson quickly obscured the Malaysian episode from scrutiny. When the Fraser government was drafting the 1976 Defence White Paper they commissioned and endorsed a secret report titled ‘Australian Strategic Analysis and Defence Policy Objectives’ which read: “The extent to which the US accepts a commitment will always depend upon US judgement regarding its own interest at the time. Much would depend on circumstances of the day.”[28] When the White Paper was delivered a month later, these concerns were completely absent.

Similarly, when the Fraser government commissioned the influential ‘Dibb Report’ in 1985, Former Department of Defence analyst Paul Dibb wrote “…for over a decade we have recognised that the United States is a global power with a variety of interests, none of them centred on Australia,” he continued that “it is realistic to assume that the parties will continue to approach each situation in accordance with their respective national interests”.[29] The resultant White Paper represented a paradigm shift of sorts towards a ‘defence of Australia’ policy that was largely in line with the Dibb report in other areas, but watered down the language on American national interest, outlining “it is not this government’s policy to rely on combat assistance from the United States in all circumstances. Our alliance with the United States does not free us from the responsibility to make appropriate provision for our own security.”[30] The 1994 Defence White Paper reverted somewhat, outlining “the undertakings in the ANZUS Treaty, and the United States’ strong record of supporting allies would mean that we would expect substantial and invaluable support from the United States in the case of a crisis.”[31]

“Substantial and invaluable support” was exactly what the strategic planners expected in the East Timor crisis, but they didn’t expect ground troops. Hugh White was Deputy Secretary of the Department of Defence during the Timor crisis and says support from the United States was one of the four necessary conditions for INTERFET to be realised.[32] However, he writes “combat forces were not what we wanted from the United States, and agreement on the size and shape of a US contribution was easily reached.”[33] In addition, the Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Cabinet Policy Unit, Michael L’Estrange has confirmed that a request for US ground forces was never sent, nor considered.[34] At a strategic level during the crisis and in the decades preceding it back to the Malaysia crisis, it is clear that the strategic community was well-aware of the limitations of the ANZUS Treaty. These attitudes stand in stark contrast to the publicised chaos of early September 1999 where Australian leaders, the Australian press and the Australian public were calling for a debt to be repaid by the United States for Australia’s loyalty over the life of the alliance.

The ‘instinctive reaction’ of John Howard to make the request for troops directly, and Alexander Downer and John Moore’s dismay at the rejection reflects the political elite and the press learning a hard lesson a second time. This essay has shown that the strategic community were aware, and had been for decades, that the operation of ANZUS is not one of a ‘special relationship’, but rather a mutual deterrent and vehicle for shared interests. The 1963 Malaysia crisis and President Kennedy’s dressing down of Sir Garfield Barwick represents the point of departure from strategic conceptions of a grand-alliance, but the resulting Vietnam period distracted the public and the press from this painful reality. This essay has shown that through the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s, the strategic community continued to outline a realist reading of the ANZUS Treaty that was lacking in the official government material.  The East Timor episode, being the first time since Malaysia that Australia was facing a crisis that didn’t directly involve the United States, elucidated the monumental gap between the public perception and this reality. In all the adulation for what ultimately was a successful mission, scrutiny of the ANZUS alliance’s role in the affair has been mostly absent, sheltered underneath the behemoth that is the post-9/11 era of relations between the two countries.  This essay has shown that those few days wherein Howard, Downer, Moore, and the press were parading an ANZUS ledger sheet represent not a ‘minor jolt’, but a rude second-awakening to the realities of the Australian American alliance.

[1] Howard, J, “Foreword”, in East Timor Intervention: A Retrospective on INTERFET, J, Blaxland (eds.), Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2015, pp. ii

[2] See Birmingham, J, “Appeasing Jakarta: Australia’s Complicity in the East Timor Tragedy,” The Quarterly Essay, 2:1, August, 2001, pp. 1 – 88; Burchill, S, “East Timor, Australia and Indonesia,” in Guns and Ballot Boxes: East Timor’s Vote for Independence, D, Kingsbury (eds.), Monash University Press, Melbourne, 2000; Fernandes, C, Reluctant Saviour, Australia, Indonesia, and the Independence of East Timor, Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2004

[3] Jenkins, D, “The bully next door,” The Sydney Morning Herald, August 27, 1999, pp. 11.

[4] Howard, J, “Speech to Parliament – East Timor”, from The Current House Hansard, 21 September 1999.

[5] Particularly topical in the penultimate month before the referendum on the republic.

[6] Kelly, P, March of the Patriots, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 482.

[7] Ibid, pp. 483; Howard, J, 2009, pp. 347.

[8] Shearer, A, “Howard and the US Alliance”, in Windshuttle, K, Jones, D.M, Evans, R (eds.) The Howard Era, Quadrant Books, Sydney, 2009, pp. 321; Howard, J, “Reflections on the Australia-United States Alliance”, event for The United States Studies Centre, 15 February 2011, Sydney.

[9] Birmingham, J, 2001.

[10] Hogue, C, ‘Perspectives on Australian Foreign Policy, 1999’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 54, No. 2, 2000, pp. 141 – 150.

[11] Garran, R, True Believer, John Howard, George Bush & the American alliance, Allen and Unwin Publishers, Sydney, 2004.

[12] Howard, J, 2010, pp. 346.

[13] Indeed, Howard had recently given a guarantee of Australian for operation Desert Fox when tensions in Iraq were on a knife-edge in 1998.

[14] Howard, J, 2011.

[15] Garran, R, ‘US Should Repay Loyalty’, The Australian, 8 September 1999.

[16] Both Downer and Howard claim that in this conversation he was able to sway her to understand the Australian position and lobby others in Washington to follow suit.

[17] McDonald, H, “Clear and present danger,” The Sydney Morning Herald, September 18, 1999, pp. 33.

[18] ‘Americans on Kosovo: A Study of US Public Attitudes’, prepared for the Program for Public Consultation, 27 May 1999.

[19]Clinton, W, ‘A report consistent with the War Powers Resolution regarding U.S. military forces in East Timor’ Committee on International Relations, 1 March 2000.

[20] Berger, S, ‘Press Briefing by National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and National Economic Advisor Gene Sperling’ 8 September 1999, accessed 12 May 2016, https:///www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=47641

[21] Ibid.

[22] See Chauvel, R, ‘Up the Creek Without a Paddle’, in Cain, F (ed.), Menzies in War and Peace, Allen and Unwin, 1997, pp. 55 – 71.

[23] Defence Committee Meeting No. 84/1963 – ‘Military Implications for Australia of the Malaysian Situation’ in Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Documents on Australian Foreign Policy: Australia and the Formation of Malaysia 1961-1966, WHH Publishing, Canberra, 2005, pp. 206.

[24] Kennedy, R quoted in Curran, J, Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2015.

[25] ‘Extract from the 1963 ANZUS Record – June 1963’ in Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2005, pp. 119-120.

[26] Subritzky, J, Confronting Sukarno: British, American, Australian and New Zealand Diplomacy in the Malaysian-Indonesian Confrontation, 1961-65, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2000, pp. 83.

[27] Menzies, R, ‘Press Radio and Television Conference Given by the Right Honourable Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister, in Canberra’,14 July 1963, accessed 5 May 2016, https://pmtranscripts.dpmc.gov.au/release/transcript-765

[28] Australian Defence Committee, Strategic Analysis and Defence Policy Objectives, September 1976, para, 305 in O’Neil, A, Asia, the US and Extended Nuclear Deterrence: Atomic Umbrellas in the Twenty-first Century, Routledge, 2013, pp. 112.

[29] Dibb, H, ‘Review of Australia’s Defence capabilities’, commissioned by The Department of Defence, March 1986, pp. 41.

[30] Department of Defence, The Defence of Australia, Defence White Paper 1987, March 1987, pp. 4.

[31] Department of Defence, Defending Australia, Defence White Paper 1994, November 1994, pp. 96; Though it did not see it fit that this be relied on.

[32] The other three being: A clear UN Security Council Mandate; Indonesian agreement; and substantial and active support from the region.

[33] White, H, ‘The Road to INTERFET: Reflections on Australian Strategic Decisions Concerning East Timor, December 1998 – September 1999’, Security Challenges, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2008, pp. 83.

[34] Quoted in Cohen, M, O’Neil, A, ‘Doubts Down Under: American extended deterrence, Australia, and the 1999 East Timor crisis’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Vol. 15, No.1, 2015, pp. 39.

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