Here are the realities. The Indonesian army is among the biggest and best-equipped in the world (thanks to our own Government and others in the West). It has been fighting in Timor for more than 20 years and would put up a bitter struggle against any invaders. From a purely logistical point of view the best the international community can do right now is to muster a few thousand troops from Australia and New Zealand; there is no sign yet that other Asian countries would support such a move. This is still a region where the apologists of Asian values - "do what you like to your own people, just don't complain about what I do to mine" - hold considerable sway.
To get American, British or other foreign troops involved would take weeks. In any case, they would never enter Timor without some Asian component to lead the way. It would look much too like a colonial expedition, white boys in jungle fatigues heading off to teach the natives a lesson. This is not Rwanda, where the swift deployment of airborne troops would have been politically feasible and militarily effective; nor is it like Kosovo or Iraq, where a military build-up took place over months. This is East Timor, betrayed by its Asian neighbours and the West for a generation.
If you want a comparison, then think not of our war against Milosevic, but rather the American attempts to crush the Somali warlords in 1993. Then we had highly public casualties and an effective military defeat. That would undoubtedly be the consequence of any immediate military action against the Indonesians.
Some, who have heard me argue the case for intervention in Rwanda and the Balkans, may think I have abandoned core principles here. Quite the opposite. In order to preserve faith in the idea of intervention, you must make sure never to rush in where you are unprepared and likely to be defeated. I am a great believer in whacking totalitarian monsters and dictators over the head; it is not a prospect that presents me with any qualms of conscience. But if you do go in, you go in to win. And right now the conditions in East Timor look anything but propitious. The consequences of failed intervention are well recorded; a million people were abandoned to die in Rwanda because the world was terrified of another Somalia.
Of course, we should have been prepared for this catastrophe. Anybody remotely interested in East Timor knew that the militias and the military planned to wreak havoc. Whatever our own leaders - Clinton, Blair, Howard in Australia - may have communicated to the Indonesian government in advance of the outbreak of violence, had no effect. (I am presuming, perhaps wrongly, that they bothered to issue some warning). The UN itself, the international media and presumably every intelligence agency worth its salt knew that democracy would be trampled underfoot. But good men did nothing. Again.
The reason is simple enough. East Timor doesn't really matter to the leaders of the West. It matters now only because camera crews and reporters have conveyed to us the horror of the militia uprising, and our politicians are embarrassed into caring. Now, on the back foot, they frantically try to cobble together a policy: Clinton warns the generals that they must stop the violence or else. But the problem is that East Timor certainly matters to the murderous Indonesian generals and their local henchmen.
There is an ironic historical parallel; ironic because it involves the Portuguese,the former colonial masters of East Timor, who are now to the forefront of international calls for action against Jakarta. Back in the early Seventies, it was a Portuguese dictatorship that prolonged vicious wars in the colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau - believing, much as the Indonesian generals do about East Timor, that these pieces of far-flung territory represented the cornerstone of their power. Lose the colonial battle, and their hold on political power would be destroyed. Those colonial wars were lost and in 1974 idealistic young army officers staged a coup which led to the establishment of a democracy in Portugal. The Indonesians are a colonial power in East Timor; claims that it is part of Indonesia are bunkum. Would that the younger officers of the Indonesian army took a similar line to that of the Portuguese leftists of 1975.
The militias are Indonesia's creation, much as the murder squads that roamed South Africa's townships in the dying days of apartheid were the creatures of the white security establishment. They have no organic life of their own. Deal with the generals, and the militias will vanish. And so the question of the hour is just how we deal with the generals.
There is one language they understand: sanctions. Start with what effects them most directly - the supply of military equipment. Our Government could lead the way, and ban all sales of hardware to Jakarta. That it has taken so long for us actively to contemplate such a move is disgraceful, but there you have it: ethical foreign policy has its financial boundaries.
The threat of financial sanctions, through the IMF and in terms of bilateral aid from Western nations, must be real. Just as in South Africa, there will be arguments that the people who really suffer from this are ordinary Indonesians. That may or may not be true, but it misses the point. We are faced with a great evil, and in trying to defeat it sanctions are a morally justifiable - as well being a practical - weapon. Right now we simply don't know who is ruling Indonesia, but whoever it is, Habibie or the generals, they need our money.
While the financial squeeze is imposed on Jakarta, a concerted military build-up should be under way. It could turn out that an invasion becomes viable. But it is more likely that sanctions will have their effect, and we shall end up committing ourselves to a prolonged peace enforcement exercise. We need a force that is led by Asian countries but with a strong Western component, a force that is well armed and has an unambiguous mandate. None of the half-hearted nonsense that led us to grief in Bosnia.
The Indonesian military may by now have achieved what it wants in East Timor. The populace are terrified and in flight, the international community has been driven out, and the democratic verdict on 25 years of Indonesian hegemony has been overturned. But they are wrong, and they are gambling with all of Indonesia if they turn this into a prolonged conflict with the international community. It could take weeks before the result bears fruit, but I suspect that with massive pressure now the generals will bow much more quickly than that.
Of course, we should intervene. Every instinct in my body tells me we have a moral duty to East Timor. But the greatest danger we face is defeat at the hands of a powerful army, which would use its victory to impose an eternal hegemony on East Timor. There are, fortunately, alternatives; we should employ them.
The writer is a special correspondent for the BBCReuse content