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José Ramos-Horta on the Complexities of Nation-Building in East Timor

Jose Ramos Horta (

Jose Ramos Horta ("Migufu"/Flickr)

Would you modify your claim now given what has transpired in Iraq since the invasion?

My article stated, and I said at the time, that the US should provide more time to the weapons inspectors, show more patience, and give a chance to the Secretary-General of the UN to mobilize international pressure to persuade Saddam Hussein to relinquish power and go into exile. This was the thrust of my article. Somehow this was translated or interpreted by different people as me endorsing intervention in Iraq. I said, and let me repeat what I said in the article, it is explicitly stated there: give more time to the weapons inspectors, ask Kofi Annan to intervene and persuade Saddam Hussein to leave office.

What I said in reference to possible intervention is what I still believe today, but it was not necessarily applicable to Iraq. What I said was that the use of force is not always legally or morally wrong. There have been situations of genocide in the past where the international community did absolutely nothing -- in the case of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, or Uganda under Idi Amin, or Rwanda -- and that was wrong. So the use of force is sometimes entirely justifiable in the face of genocide, in the face of imminent war, or to prevent imminent aggression.

In the case of Iraq, notwithstanding the violence there at the moment, the very fact that a hideous regime -- responsible for genocide, for the use of chemical and biological weapons, aggression against two neighbors -- has been removed in itself is a positive development. Another positive development is that millions of Iraqis defied the widespread violence and went to the polls several times to cast their vote. If the Iraqis were not happy with their new situation, they would have said no to the elections, they would not have voted, particularly in view of the violence that was taking place.

The violence occurring in Iraq is orchestrated by the remnants of Saddam Hussein, by Arab mercenaries, al-Qaeda and others, who are not interested in a secular, peaceful, and democratic Iraq. They want to impose their rule, their views of Islam, and their views of governance on Iraq like they once did successfully in Afghanistan during the Taliban period, until they were overthrown by force. So that is the challenge in Iraq today: either democratic and secular forces prevail, or the extremists, led by al-Qaeda and others, prevail. What is our choice?

But how do you think that democratic and secular forces can actually prevail under conditions of military occupation by a foreign country?

Well, madam, if there were not those conditions, a foreign military occupation, if the Americans were to listen to those who are calling for their withdrawal…

I didn't call for their withdrawal.

No, no, I am sorry, to those who call for their withdrawal, to end foreign occupation, I guarantee you the remnants of Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda, Zarqawi take over. So that is the dilemma.

But that is a separate matter. One can say that under conditions of American military occupation radical Islamist forces may be prevented from coming into power and that it is not possible for secular, democratic forces to take root as long as the occupation continues. Both these things can be true.

Well, some people seem to view the conflict in Iraq as one caused only by the US intervention. Before the US intervention it was Saddam Hussein and his wars of aggression against his neighbors, his use of chemical and biological weapons, and his slaughter of Iraqis and Kurds. After Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and other extremist elements that were operating in Afghanistan, who had been ousted in Afghanistan, flocked to Iraq to carry out their battle there. The international community must side with the secular, moderate forces who have no weapons at their disposal, who are not fanatics, whose only tool of exercising their power is through the ballot box -- and this is what they have done, they have gone to the ballot box, they have voted in several elections in Iraq, while the insurgents are carrying weapons, while the insurgents and others have blown up civilians. That is their agenda.

So I would find it extremely dangerous, the proposition that the US or the coalition should vacate Iraq. They should, I also agree there should be a timetable, there should be a phased withdrawal, but in a very prudent manner so that the new, trained security forces and police in Iraq can take over.