A former senior security official’s account of a visit to Indonesia elides dark episodes in the past of Indonesia and the United States
This year’s prestigious Richard Dimbleby Lecture was given by former CIA Director John O. Brennan. He used the lecture to argue for (amongst other things) the benefits of international co-operation and a globally-engaged United States.
However, it is not Brennan’s broad arguments that I want to look at here, but rather a specific vignette which he used to set up his case. During the lecture he gave a a brief biographical sketch, in which he suggested a visit to Indonesia during his time at university proved a turning point in his life – one that would ultimately set him on a path to his role at the CIA. The trip brought him into contact with a range of beliefs and worldviews and was struck by ‘the tolerance evident in the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population’ in a country recovering from the ‘authoritarian and bloody rule of President Sukarno’.
There are a couple of grains of truth here. Indonesia is certainly characterised by religious diversity and this is officially recognised (within certain limits) by the state. Moreover, Indonesia had taken an authoritarian turn in the latter part of Sukarno’s presidency (though in the earlier period Indonesia was a remarkable, if fragile, constitutional democracy).
Yet from Brennan’s account, one would have no idea that, less than ten years before Brennan’s visit, Indonesia had witnessed one of the great mass murders of the twentieth century, carried out under the auspices of the military regime that sidelined Sukarno, and with the support of the US government (among others). Moreover, in some areas religion played a significant role in the killings.
And this is not to mention Indonesia’s bloody invasion of East Timor that would occur the year after Brennan’s visit, with the blessing of the US and several close allies.
With this knowledge, the elisions evident in Brennan’s account (an excerpt from the speech is provided below) become quite chilling, and provide an ironic slant on the lecture’s title: ‘Staying Safe in a Dangerous World’.
‘The journey that led me to become the director of the CIA began in June 1974, when I set off on a trip that would fundamentally alter my life’s course. I had just finished my first year at college… a cousin of mine invited me to visit him in Indonesia. At the time my cousin was a diplomat at the US embassy in Jakarta, serving as the Food for Peace Officer at the US Agency for International Development. So, at the tender age of 18, I set of for Indonesia, after I pillaged my modest bank account, and bought a round-trip, but multiple-stop plane ticket to Jakarta. To help defray the cost of my trip, I convinced one of my political science professors at Fordham to grant me credit toward my degree if I wrote a paper on oil and politics in Indonesia. And most important, for two glorious months I had a brief, but oh so enlightening initial glimpse, into the wonders, the contours and the dynamics of our beautiful world. Indonesia was just emerging from the economic devastation wrought by nearly twenty years of the authoritarian and bloody rule of President Sukarno. Squalor was widespread and beyond anything I could have imagined. Splendour was a rarity, and there was almost nothing in between, and population pressures were overwhelming. But I was also struck by the tolerance evident in the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population. I rode motorcycles across the island of Java with an Indonesian Christian, I marvelled at the world’s largest Buddhist temple, the Borobodur, and I surfed on the beaches of the predominantly Hindu island of Bali. And it was in these latter excursions that I interacted with and talked to people with entirely different life experiences, different cultural norms, different religious beliefs and different world views. It was an intense two month seminar in just how special, how thrilling, and how diverse life is on our planet. It was in that summer of 1974 that my wanderlust and my deep fascination with the diversity, the scope and the dynamism of the world’s riches, challenges and opportunities were born.’