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The Road to INTERFET: Reflections on Australian Strategic Decisions Concerning East Timor, December 1998-September 1999

Author: Hugh White

Volume 4, Number 1 (Autumn 2008), pp. 69-87.


In 1999, as Deputy Secretary for Strategy in the Australian Department of Defence, I had some involvement in strategic decisions about East Timor which led to the deployment of INTERFET. This essay, based more on recollection than scholarship, offers reflections on some of those decisions. It considers especially the questions of Australiaís overall strategic aims in 1999, and how well they were fulfilled, and Australiaís attitude towards the need for a full-scale peacekeeping force in East Timor before the ballot. On the former it concludes that, notwithstanding INTERFETís operational success, the Australian Government completely failed to achieve the strategic objectives it had set itself at the start of 1999. On the latter it argues that ambivalence about the need for a pre-ballot peacekeeping force prevented the Government lobbying as hard as we could have for one to be deployed, which may have contributed materially to the tragedy in September.

About the Author

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies and head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He writes regularly on security and international issues for The Australian. His principle research interests are Australian strategic and defence policy, and the regional and global security issues that most directly affect Australia. He has worked on Australian strategic, defence and foreign-policy issues for 25 years in a number of capacities inside and outside Government. His previous positions have included: Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) 2000-2004, Deputy Secretary for Strategy in the Department of Defence 1995-2000, Head of the Strategic Analysis Branch, ONA 1992-1993, Senior Adviser on International Affairs to Prime Minister Bob Hawke 1990-1991, Senior Adviser to the Defence Minister Kim Beazley 1984-1990, and foreign affairs and defence correspondent on the Sydney Morning Herald 1983-1984. In the 1970s he studied philosophy at Melbourne and Oxford Universities, and was awarded Oxfordís John Locke Prize in Mental Philosophy in 1998. hugh.white@anu.edu.au.


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