We're not so ethical with the big boys

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Even the Americans finally balked at doing business with the Indonesian army last week, suspending military ties with President BJ Habibie's regime as his soldiers took revenge on the defenceless citizens of East Timor. "We are officially suspending our military- to-military relationship," announced a Pentagon spokesman, Admiral Craig Quigley, sounding like a man who has just had a stiff object inserted into a sensitive orifice. "This is not a military that we feel we can sustain a military-to-military relationship with at this point."

It pained the US Defense Department to offer even this sop to international opinion, after years of supporting an Indonesian dictatorship which it regarded as a bulwark against communism in South-east Asia. Since the US Congress had limited military aid to a paltry $476,000 this year, because of human rights abuses by the armed forces, the Indonesians are not exactly reeling under the blow - or, indeed, from President Clinton's imposition yesterday of a partial arms embargo.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jenny Shipley, was bracing herself last week to host an Apec summit which could hardly avoid saying something - as opposed to doing something - about the slaughter in East Timor. Shipley could at least take comfort, the New Zealand Herald said, from the "backbone-inducing presence in Auckland of a post-Kosovo Robin Cook, Britain's nuggety Foreign Secretary".

Could you just run that past me again? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a nugget as "something valuable for its size", which many of us would regard as unnecessarily flattering to our diminutive Foreign Secretary; it also offers "a lump", which is considerably nearer the mark. Anyone who heard Cook's lamentable performance on Radio 4's Today programme on Thursday morning might fairly have concluded that the Foreign Secretary is himself about as vertebrate as your average jellyfish; in the pre-recorded interview Cook refused five times to answer a perfectly reasonable question from John Humphrys as to whether he had withdrawn an invitation to the Indonesian military to attend an arms fair in Britain this week. It was Cook at his worst: testy, claiming to have answered the question when he hadn't. Of course he has had many trials to bear since taking office, from the public disintegration of his marriage to overseeing an "ethical" policy which has conspicuously failed to end Britain's long- standing arms trade with Indonesia.

That policy is now in tatters. Last week, the international community of which Britain is a significant part continued to shame itself by sucking up to murderers and psychopaths, with only a handful of governments prepared to send troops to East Timor - and then only if the Indonesians agree. Pentagon officials were briefing journalists about the "military professionalism" of General Wiranto, Indonesia's military commander and the man widely thought to have engineered a silent coup against Habibie on Thursday. What no one has explained is why these courtesies are being extended to a government that has no jurisdiction in East Timor; the UN has never recognised Indonesia's authority over the territory it invaded in 1975.

No such niceties were respected in Kosovo, where President Milosevic had a much stronger claim to govern the province than Habibie - or whoever is really in charge in Jakarta these days - has ever had to determine what goes on in East Timor. Sending in British, New Zealand or Australian troops to prevent the massacres taking place would not be an affront to Indonesia's national sovereignty, so why have world leaders done nothing but issue meaningless ultimatums? Indeed, given that Britain has armed and trained the Indonesian military for so long, it could be argued that we have a special responsibility towards the population of East Timor, not to mention invaluable knowledge of the occupiers. But Cook and his hopeless sidekick, the defence procurement minister Baroness Symons, could not even bring themselves to ban Indonesian officers from a piddling arms fair.

"Because we bombed in Kosovo doesn't mean we should bomb Dili," insisted Sandy Berger, President Clinton's National Security Adviser, last week. "Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world." These are heart- breaking events, in which the new world order we heard so much about at the end of March, when Tony Blair and Bill Clinton ignored the UN and intervened in Kosovo, has collapsed in bloodshed. The people of East Timor voted for independence and have been abandoned to their awful fate, with only a tiny but courageous band of UN staff willing to stand by them. The West is prepared to go to war on humanitarian grounds, but with small friendless countries, not big influential ones.