Americans are once again witnessing systematic murders and mass expulsions of an ethnic minority in a remote backwater on the other side of the world.
And again, they and their government are having to balance moral imperative against national interest in deciding where, how, and when history's mightiest nation should use its unmatched military power to halt large-scale human suffering.
The onslaught by pro-Indonesia militias against the people of East Timor is the current case in point (semblance of order restored, page 6). But the question of humanitarian intervention has resurfaced steadily since the 1993 debacle in Somalia. It has raged through genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and this year's Kosovo crisis, affecting ties with allies and rivals, shaping domestic political deliberations, and clawing at the national conscience. And it is likely to be an issue in next year's presidential election.
"The question is the most difficult question in American foreign policy," says Lee Hamilton, the former top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, who heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "It's going to confront us in the years ahead simply because of our unique intervention capabilities."
The Clinton administration is worried that those capabilities may now be overstretched, with American forces committed in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq and braced in Northeast Asia amid grave tensions over North Korea and Taiwan.
It sees the East Timor crisis as an opportunity for other nations to share the burden of ensuring global stability. So while throwing its weight behind the idea of a United Nations-backed force for East Timor led by Australia and Malaysia, the administration rules out any role for the American military, save for logistics and other support functions.
"We have to recognize ... that the Indonesians will respond much better to a solution that is dominated by the Asians," and not by America, says National Security Adviser Samuel Berger.
For now, the US is using diplomatic muscle and threats of economic sanctions to compel Indonesia to either end the violence some of its troops are abetting in East Timor or agree to international intervention. A UN-backed force would restore order, protect the return of 200,000 refugees, and help implement the former Portuguese colony's Aug. 30 vote for independence. That vote triggered the rampages by pro-Jakarta militias.
The White House also seems anxious to ease a growing clamor abroad against American arrogance of power, a perception fueled by US-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia earlier this year, which lacked UN approval.
"The United States cannot be, and should not be, viewed as the policeman of the world," says Defense Secretary William Cohen.
Domestically, committing ground troops to East Timor has virtually no support in Congress. Such a move would also make Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic leader in the 2000 presidential race, vulnerable to GOP charges that US forces are being worn out by too many operations of marginal security interest.
Yet the determination to play only a supporting role in East Timor carries consequences. These include leaving Clinton and Mr. Gore open to charges of ignoring human catastrophes that can destabilize whole regions, undermining US standing.
This view has been strengthened by the US failure to pay its share of the UN peacekeeping budget totaling hundreds of millions of dollars - a debt Republicans in Congress have kept Clinton from paying.
The White House could also face new charges that its intervention decisions smack of racism. Such claims stem from refusals to contribute US troops to African peacekeeping missions and the failure to halt the 1994 slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda, something for which Clinton has since apologized.
Some experts, including opponents and supporters of US participation in peacekeeping operations, say Clinton has himself to blame for criticism. "We are at the point where we really need a presidential statement clarifying American policy with respect to intervention," Mr. Hamilton says.
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, says Clinton's criteria for humanitarian intervention - laid down during the Kosovo crisis - differ from those stated by Mr. Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
According to Mr. O'Hanlon, the president says the US would try to halt genocidal acts if it has the ability to do so; Berger adds that vital American interests must at stake, while Ms. Albright says there is no specific doctrine. She has also set Europe apart as a special case where US interests mandate intervention. "They are left in a situation where it is case-by-case ad-hockery, because there is no framework," says O'Hanlon.
Hamilton agrees. Clinton, he says, "stated the Kosovo precedent very broadly, indicating we could intervene in humanitarian crises across the world and put the single limitation on it of whether we have the capabilities to do so. Well, we have the capabilities to do so everywhere."
Experts also see a need to better define which national interests warrant intervention. In an age of global markets, instant communication, and spread of weapons of mass destruction, US interests are no longer confined to specific regions. In the case of Indonesia, identified US interests include promoting human rights, securing sea lanes to the Persian Gulf and US private investments, and the cohesion of the world's most populous Muslim state.
Yet all this makes it hard to set specific thresholds for US action. "We don't try to put a scorecard on these things," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said this week. "We deal with these based on our ability to influence things around the world, our concern for humanitarian conditions around the world, our strategic interests around the world."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society