To the Editor:

James Traub's account of the U.N. mission in East Timor is far too rosy ("Inventing East Timor," July/August 2000). As my recent visit to East Timor made clear, the U.N. has underperformed and is still unprepared for the long-term security dilemma of that isolated nation of one million people.

Traub says that the U.N. is "fully aware of East Timor's importance as a test case and has sent out a kind of A-team of international technocrats" who "speak four or five languages." Right idea, wrong languages. Only a handful of U.N. staff speak Bahasa Indonesia (a Malay tongue) or Tetun, preventing them from communicating with 80 percent of East Timor's population. Translators offer no substitute, since few local Timorese speak more than rudimentary English. And the U.N.'s commitment in East Timor to a smorgasbord staff from around the world -- considered in U.N. circles to be the weakest of any recent mission -- forbade the obvious alternative of tapping into the 320 million regional speakers of Malay.

The U.N. Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) building overlooking the harbor in Dili is also chockablock with p-5s, d-1s, and d-2s -- expensive senior staff -- who happen to lack any experience in providing basic government services. (Running interference in New York is different from planning a road system.) Senator Jesse Helms needn't worry about world government -- even this small effort has been tied in knots. For example, all contract purchases over $200,000 (in other words, 20 cents per citizen) have to be routed back to New York to queue up on the agenda of the General Assembly contracts committee. District administrators in isolated parts of East Timor complain that even their smallest projects have been micromanaged from UNTAET headquarters, and many of the international donors have chosen to avoid the roadblock and deliver aid directly to the countryside. At a recent meeting with international donors, UNTAET mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello was forced to concede that aid delivery on the ground was disappointing: as of July 1, less than four percent of the $147 million pledged to the U.N. trust fund for East Timor had been delivered.

The U.N.'s halting performance has prompted a panicky course correction. After public criticism this summer from Jose Ramos-Horta, the leader of the National Council for East Timorese Resistance (CNRT), the U.N. announced that it would replace its district administrators with local Timorese and would turn over four ministries to Timorese leadership. But this may cause a different problem: a failure of democracy.

Traub says that the CNRT's "authority appears to be unquestioned." In fact, many are concerned that some of the CNRT's older leaders -- who have sentimental ties to Portugal -- often confuse their coalition with democracy itself. The CNRT has never been elected at the polls, but its nominees are presented whenever scholarship moneys are available, or a representative of "youth" or "women" is to be put on a governing council. The Falantil, the military arm of the Fretilin (the strongest party in the CNRT), have kept their weapons and remain in Aileu, 90 minutes from Dili. Traub is right when he notes that many Falantil leaders are "highly respected" for resisting Jakarta and seeking independence over the last 25 years, but there is also a simmering fear that they may become enforcers for the CNRT. (The Falantil recently blocked U.N. staff from leaving the Aileu district to protest the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations' bar against food aid to armed groups. U.N. staff were also evacuated from Aileu last June when Falantil factions had a falling out among themselves.) Chinese entrepreneurs are still deterred from returning by the CNRT's refrain of East Timorese nationalism, and 250 Muslim families remain holed up in the downtown mosque in Dili, scared to venture back to their homes.

Traub is profoundly wrong in supposing that East Timor's "future status is unambiguous." Yes, the country will be nominally independent. But its dependence on international military protection has no obvious end date or end state. Tiny East Timor cannot equip a significant military force itself, apart from guerrilla resistance. Its long-term national budget of $43 million, which must pay for everything -- schools, roads, courts, and military -- will not be enough to buy hardware or field a large force against a Goliath neighbor. Portugal is too far away to provide much more than diplomatic support. And Australia is an ambivalent source of comfort. For 25 years, Australia accepted Indonesia's annexation of East Timor because Canberra did not want a quarrel with a large neighbor, and the oil reserves of the Timor Gap looked promising. Australia didn't dare go into East Timor during the pre-election militia intimidation because Jakarta said it would regard intervention as an act of war. And Australian security forces are feeling stretched -- down to 48,000, and unable to offer troops for the Solomon Islands or Fiji during their recent paroxysms -- because of the rotation into East Timor. Meanwhile, the U.N. is pressing Australia to give up most of its share of the Timor Gap gas and oil.

Traub's claim that the "militias have remained behind the border, harassing refugees but otherwise posing very little threat" is dated at best. In late July and early August, pro-Jakarta militia fired on U.N. patrols from inside East Timor, killing two peacekeepers, and in macabre fashion, cut off the ears of one of them. U.N. workers at the refugee camps in western Timor have had to withdraw after being attacked with machetes, and three refugee workers were recently killed, including an American. Over the course of the spring and summer, there have been 16 militia attacks on U.N. peacekeeping posts and an attempted shoot-down of a U.N. helicopter. The U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N., Richard Holbrooke, who had hoped to downsize the peacekeeping force last June, noted on September 5 that the situation is "alarming" with "clear deterioration" and "substantial evidence that the Indonesian military ... are ... equipping and training the militia to go back into East Timor." Militia leaders have recently called for partition of East Timor, with resettlement of pro-Jakarta refugees near the border with Indonesia -- an arrangement similar to that of Republika Srpska and Serbia.

In December 1975, the U.N. Security Council condemned Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, heralding the "inalienable right of the people of East Timor to self-determination and independence" and calling on Indonesia to withdraw its forces. The council certainly did not treat East Timor, contrary to Traub's assertion, as "an internal Indonesian problem." But council resolutions are not self-enforcing, as we have learned the hard way. East Timor's awkward distance from Australia -- the island's nearest point is 350 miles from Darwin, not 150 miles, as Traub says -- means that giving real effect to de jure independence will almost certainly require another long-term U.N. commitment.

Ruth Wedgwood

Senior Fellow for International Organizations and Law, Council on Foreign Relations