Remarks on the Situation in East Timor and an Exchange With Reporters in Auckland
The President. Let me begin by saying that I welcome the statement of President Habibie last night inviting the United Nations to send a security force into East Timor. I think that this is a real tribute to the determination of the friends of the people there, the Australians, the New Zealanders here, all the people here at APEC who express solidarity.
I think there are a couple of points I'd like to make about it. Number one, it's important to get the details worked out and get this force in in a hurry, in a way that it can be effective. Number two, if that happens, then we can resume our work with the people of Indonesia, the world's fourth largest country, to help their transition to democracy and the restoration of prosperity there.
In terms of what our role would be in East Timor, we have had extensive discussions with the Australians through our defense channels, and we've been asked to provide a limited but important function related to airlift, transportation, communications, intelligence, and perhaps some engineering work. Exactly what the details would be have yet to be worked out and require more extensive consultations with Congress.
I made a number of calls before I left the country. Secretary Cohen and Mr. Podesta are back there now working on this issue. But I hope we can wrap it up. The most important thing is for President Habibie to make good on his statement, get the details worked out, get the force in in a hurry.
Q. Mr. President, will there be any U.S. ground troops in combat roles in East Timor?
The President. We've not discussed that; we've not been asked for that. I talked to Prime Minister Howard yesterday, and I stopped in Hawaii, as all of you know, and met with our commander in chief there, Admiral Blair, and obviously, I've talked to Secretary Cohen and General Shelton. What we have been asked to do so far relates to airlift; what countries are going to contribute to troops—someone needs to take them to the theater—relates to transportation, communications, intelligence, and the possibility of some engineering work. All of that would require some presence on the ground in East Timor, but no one has asked us for any combat troops.
Q. Mr. President, these are troops that, by and large, have never worked together before. It's not like the NATO kind of force. Do you see for the United States any kind of coordinating role to keep the peacekeepers together, to have a command structure for them?
The President. We might be asked to provide some help on command and control. But keep in mind, a number of these troops have worked together. There is a group here in this part of the Asia-Pacific region that train together, that work together, that do exercises together. So there is some experience here. But there will be some work to be done, depending on how many countries come on the command and control, and if we're asked to provide some technical assistance there, of course, we'd be willing to help.
Q. Mr. President, how much control will the Indonesians have about the makeup of the force? They've already said that they're uncomfortable with the Australians being the leaders.
The President. Well, that has to be worked out today. But my view is that we should work with the Indonesians in a cooperative fashion. Perhaps they should have some parallel presence even, but they should not be able to say who is in or not in the force, and what the structure of the force will be. Otherwise it will raise all kinds of questions about whether there will be integrity in the force, and it will also delay the implementation.
The truth is the Australians are willing to carry the lion's share of the role. They're willing to put in a large number of people. They have enormous military capacity. Our people have great confidence in working with them. And so I don't think that we should be in a position of having this thing delayed for days and days and days over that, and I hope that it won't be when the talks occur today with the Indonesians leadership.
Q. Mr. President, as a practical matter, what's the quickest you think a deployment could occur; 24 hours, 48 hours? How quick?
The President. I think we could begin to move quickly, but I think it depends upon the meeting today with the Indonesians. Let's wait and see what happens today, and then you ask me that question either late today or tomorrow, I can give you a more intelligent answer.
Thank you all.
NOTE: The President spoke at 8:45 a.m. at the Stamford Plaza Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to President B.J. Habibie of Indonesia; and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia.
William J. Clinton, Remarks on the Situation in East Timor and an Exchange With Reporters in Auckland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/226033