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Dealing with the devil; why is the U.S. helping the worst killers since Hitler?

Dealing with the Devil

On April 11, 1975, the chief of the United States mission in Beijing, George Bush, asked a storied prince to return to his homeland.

The exile was Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, a small man given to nervous giggles and strangely effective political theatrics. Placed in power by the French in 1941, Sihanouk ruled Cambodia with vigor and inconsistency before being ousted by right-wing legislators in 1970.

Now he was living in a Beijing mansion and filling his time with cooking experiments. In Cambodia, the government of his replacement, General Lon Nol, was tottering as the fighters of the leftist Khmer Rouge battered their way towards Phnom Penh. Bush, through a French diplomat, offered to fly sihanouk back to his capital if he would agree to once again become head of state. The United States felt that Sihanouk, a nationalist figure still beloved by peasants, was the only one who could head off a Khmer Rouge victory.

For Sihanouk it must have been a moment of supreme irony. His relations with the U.S. had often been poor, and U.S. officials had given tacit support to the rebels who had toppled him. Furthermore, he was in China as the nominal representative of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, though in fct he detested and feared them and was as much prisoner as emissary.

But the American change of heart had been too long delayed. By the morning of April 12, the Khmer Rouge were in the Phnom Penh suburbs, and no one could guarantee Sihanouk's safety if he returned. He turned down the U.S. offer. "It was just too late," Sihanouk later told an interviewer.


Today the former U.S. chief of mission is president. Sihanouk is still in exile. The murderous Khmer Rouge, having triumphed and fallen, are once again fighting their way towards Phnom Penh. And once again the United States may act too late to stop them.

The Cambodian killing fields, the emptying of the cities, the mindless xenophobia--all that may yet return. If it does, the United States will bear heavy responsibility for the tragedy. State Department officials say they don't want the Khmer Rouge back in power. But in one of those strange twists that gives geopolitics a bad name, the United States is for all practical purposes a Khmer Rouge ally.

Why a nice country like America got on the same side of the table with the worst killers since the Nazis is a complicated story. But the fundamental reason is that America's long-standing fascination with China was transofrmed by Henry Kissinger's realpolitik into a religion, one which leads its many zealots to bend over backward, in the face of all kinds of contravening developments, just to be China's friend. Kissinger's decision to play the China card against the Soviets was in its day brilliant, establishing a rapprochement with a country showing some domestic promise while giving much pause to a menacing Soviet Union. But in the last decade the United States has frequently found itself blindly doing things for China that not only make no strategic sense but are also morally disastrous. Under the guidance of would-be China hand George Bush, this past year the fixation became particularly absurd and embarrassing: What was the point after Tiananmen Square and the triumph of glasnot? Nowadays China doesn't even amount to a glimmer of a reason for supporting the Khmer Rouge. At last, after years of moral complexity in the Far East, the United States has found a place where it can remove all ambiguity from its actions: In Cambodia we are doing a bad thing for a bad reason.

Playing the China card in Cambodia fits beautifully with what might be called the Metternich Fallacy--the belief that morality plays only a bit part in foreign policy and that it's the country with the most ingenious schemes that wins.

The current flurry of international diplomatic activity over Cambodia may yet produce some sort of workable, UN-sponsored peace plan. More likely it won't, and fighting will continue in a nation already as traumatized as any on earth.

Admittedly the situation in Cambodia is far from simple. The Khmer nation has long served as a regional Belgium, a battleground for larger neighbors who don't want to fight on their own territory. For those who have preferred to ignore Indochina since the Vietnam war, here is a quick glossary of the players and their positions:

KHMER ROUGE. Still the unspeakable thugs they used to be, still apparently headed by the notorious Pol Pot and his henchmen, the Khmer Rouge are the strongest faction in the tripartite force fighting the incumbent Cambodian government.

CHINA. Main patron, banker, and armorer of the Khmer Rouge, China is motivated by a desire to inflict as much pain as possible on a nation it views as an ungrateful upstart and regional rival, Vietnam.

PRINCE SIHANOUK. Head of one of two noncommunist resistance factions, and main political spokesman for the tripartite resistance, Sihanouk is continuing his uneasy association with the Khmer Rouge, who are probably responsible for the death of at least 15 of his relatives.

UNITED STATES. Provider of aid for Sihanouk and his fellow noncommunist leader son Sann, the U.S. hopes the Khmer Rouge role in the resistance somehow will disappear or be contained by Sihanouk political magic.

HUN SEN. Prime minister of the current Cambodian government, which was installed by the Vietnamese after they conquered Cambodia in 1979; a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected to Vietnam in 1977.

VIETNAM. Having invaded Cambodia in the wake of brutal Khmer Rouge border raids, Vietnam has apparently now withdrawn its occupying forces but continues to provide arms and aid to Hun Sen.

USSR. Once Vietnam's main backer, the Soviet Union may well have pushed for the Vietnamese troop withdrawal.

American officials have no illusions about the Khmer Rouge. They say they don't want them back in Phnom Penh. But the U.S. policy is a strange one of quasi-alliance with a group that is officially an anathema. The United States strongly backs Sihanouk and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), both of whom consider the Khmer Rouge a military tool and a bad guy who is easier to deal with if he's on your side. The Khmer Rouge have an estimated 30-40,000 fighters, far more than the other resistance factions. Sihanouk calls siding with them a "terrible choice" he is obliged to take.

"We can't disagree with sihanouk," says a State Department official. "Maybe there are other solutions, but we haven't found any."

The vision held in Foggy Bottom and ASEAN embassies goes like this: We'll be able to defang the Khmer Rouge with a comprehensive political solution. Either through a direct agreement between the resistance coalition and the Hun Sen government or under UN auspices, all the different political factions in Cambodia will agree to free elections. Military units will move to quarantine zones in the country and voluntarily give up their arms. The Khmer Rouge will get .01 percent of the vote in an election, providing their main backer, China, a face-saving excuse to drop them. With no money, no support, and no bullets, the last of the Khmer Rouge will live out their days as guerrillas, easily handled by sihanouk or whatever democrat wins the vote.

Khmer Rouge leaders have indicated their willingness to go along with parts of this political vision. At last year's Paris peace talks, to everyone's astonishment, the Khmer Rouge said OK to quarantine zones.

But do we really believe this? Abiding by the ballot box? Voluntary disarmament? This is the Khmer Rouge, not the Boy Scouts of America. This is one of the most inexplicable horrors of modern times, a guerrilla group from Stephen King. In the three-and-a-half-year period they ruled Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge killed more than a million people through execution, starvation, and overwork. They took the country back to a proclaimed "Year Zero" and made grass grow in the streets of Phnom Penh.

If the Khmer Rouge are to be kept from ever again seizing Cambodia, they will have to be defeated in war. The only questions are: When do you fight them, and who does the fighting? If you wait too long, it could be just like 1975--too late to stop them.

"If the Khmer Rouge take over, we'll share complicity," says Jeremy Stone, son of I.F. Stone, president of the Federation of American Scientists and a fierce critic of U.S. Cambodia policy.

Tanks again

Three problems combined with the overarching China fixation to dog the U.S. policy towards postwar Cambodia from the outset: overemphasis on superpower involvement, too much Washington intramural politics, and a considerable desire for revenge against vietnam.

When Vietnamese Soviet-built tanks rolled into Cambodia on Christmas Day 1978, the invasion could have been seen as a nationalist struggle best avoided by the United States. Some high U.S. officials--notable, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his assistant secretary for East Asia, Richard Holbrooke--thought exactly that.

Cambodia and Vietnam, after all had been vacillating between uneasy cooperation and war for centuries. Enmity was deep-rooted, particularly on the part of Cambodians, who had seen much of their territory gradually swallowed up in greater Vietnam. In his excellent history of 1970s Indochina, former Far East Economic Review correspondent Nayan Chanda tells a story he heard countless times in Khmer Rouge Cambodia, involving three Khmer forced laborers in 1820 who were punished by their Vietnamese overlord for not working hard enough. "The Vietnamese buried the hapless Khmers to their necks, so the story runs, and used their heads to support a kettle for boiling water," writes Chanda.

But Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski saw the new Indochina war as a black-and-white struggle between superpwer proxies. In his view, Vietnam was a client state urged on by the Soviets in an effort to make a strategic thrust against the Chinese, Cambodia's ally. True, the Khmer Rouge were somewhat distasteful and hard to paint as aggrieved innocents. But it seemed that siding with a two-bit regional villain was surely defensible if it meant standing nobly against Soviet expansionism.

In his memoir, Power and Principle, Brzezinski writes that in a January 1979 letter President Carter "reminded Moscow of its special responsibility for Hanoi's action and stressed that continued Vietnamese aggression could lead to serious problems for the USSR. These warnings went unheeded." And what might those threatened "serious problems" be? Mostly one--a united U.S.-Sino front. Brzezinski cautioned the Soviets that "their actions might have some impact on the nature of the American-Chinese relationship." In other words, get your friend to leave Cambodia to its genocidal maniac rulers or we'll tip the global geostrategic balance against you.

Besides anti-Soviet sentiment, the other main reason for taking this line was that, above all else, U.S. Far Eastern policy had become obsessed with keeping China happy. And the Chinese wanted the United States to support the Khmer Rouge. China saw the new Indochina war as a Soviet-backed move against their own region of influence. During his visit to Washington in January 1979, Deng Xiaoping spoke ominously of teaching Vietnam a lesson, foreshadowing the punitive Chinese attack against Vietnam that was to follow shortly thereafter. One major lesson of this move was that outmoded Chinese tactics were little match for a battle-hardened army, but that didn't stop Brzezinski from admiring Deng's style in his memoirs. In words that subsequent events have given more meaning than he intended, Brzezinski wrote that "I secretly wished that Deng's appreciation of the uses of power would . . . rub off on some of the key U.S. decision makers."

Milquetoast on China, the United States was anything but when it came to Vietnam. A trade embargo had been placed on Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, and the American public and Congress had no interest in extending a hand to a nation that had so recently bested them on the battlefield. Brzezinski considered relations with Vietnam a minor issue--one that threatened better ties with China.

So he scuttled the State Department vision of balanced openings to China and Vietnam in favor of the tilt to Beijing. The illogical outcome of this approach, as applied to Cambodia, became apparent in late 1979. By then the Khmer Rouge were reduced to desperate guerrillas, and Vietnam firmly controlled the Cambodian nation. But the United Nations Credential Committee voted 6-to-3 to let the Pol Pot regime keep its UN seat. The United States voted with the majority. Even though President Carter, human rights advocate, had called the Khmer Rouge the "greatest violator of human rights" in the world, his administration voted to give them international recognition. Similar votes transpired in subsequent years.

This policy rolled along unchanged through the early, fiercely anticommunist years of the Reagan administration. With domestic tax and budget cuts high on the Reagan agenda, Nicaragua was the only non-Soviet foreign issue that got much attention in the White House.

In 1982 Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger swung through the region and took the opportunity to reiterate U.S. coldness to Vietnam as long as Cambodia was occupied. "We will not reward Vietnamese aggression of any kind," he said. At the same time, there was still reluctance on the part of the State Department to be drawn into a greater role in the Cambodian conflict. In 1985, then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Paul Wolfowitz was testifying before Congress that military aid for the non-communist rebel factions was a bad idea, and that the U.S. wouldn't even indirectly aid the Khmer Rouge.

But that same year a new Washington intramural battle over Cambodia broke out. This one wasn't between executive branch factions. It began in Congress, with Rep. Stephen Solarz as its instigator, and it ended by opening a pipeline of U.S. aid for the Khmer Rouge.

The Solarz system

Foreign affairs is not traditionally popular on Capitol Hill, due to its inherent lack of vote-getting potential. Legislators who take to it always face the danger of the "Chuck Percy Syndrome," after the former GOP senator from Illinois who was defeated partly because voters thought he was spending too much time hobnobbing with foreign dignitaries and not enough time in Alton or Chicago.

In this climate of low interest, Solarz has risen easily to power. He's smart, energetic, and meddlesome--reportedly, during last December's Philippine coup attempt he requested an Air Force plane so he could fly to Manila to criticize administration actions on site.

On Capitol Hill he is widely considered Mr. Asia, even by those who wish it weren't so. In 1985, Solarz decided that the logical end of the U.S. approach to Cambodia could be the horror of the return to power of the Khmer Rouge. His solution: Arm the noncommunist factions of the tripartite resistance. Even though the administration hadn't requested it, Solarz pushed for $5 million in aid to the fighters of Prince Sihanouk and Son Senn.

Ultimately the aid package passed by a large margin. In the House, the feeling among some members was that the Democrats needed an opportunity to look tough in the context of their opposition to arming the Nicaraguan contras and Ronald Reagan's continuing diatribes about the evil empire. Rep. Jim Leach, a moderate Republican and ranking minority member on Solarz's subcommittee, opposed the aid. "I have a sense that this committee is trying to make a mark on this town, that we're going to be more anticommunist than Ronald Reagan. That is tough competition," he said at the time.

Between 1985 and 1988, Congress voted $5 million a year in aid to the resistance. Largely due to Leach's efforts, the money was supposed to be for "nonlethal" aid--bandages and food as opposed to bullets. But as the experience with the Nicaraguan contras shows, the concept of "nonlethal" aid is a convenient fiction. Every dollar not spent on food is one freed up for AK-47s.

In 1989 the issue of forthright lethal aid arose: The White House went to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees with a request for covert funds to arm the Sihanoukist factions. With strong White House backing--including Dan Quayle's presence in the Senate chamber in case his tie-breaking vote was needed--the concept of lethal aid for Cambodia was approved by both the House and Senate last July.

Stooge of the Rouge

Ignited by an obsession with China and superpower politics, fueled by congressional macho posturing, it seems to be something driven by people who aren't watching where they're going. In July 1988, a senior administration official, briefing reporters on a trip by Secretary of State Shultz to Asia, was asked what measures the United States had in mind to keep Pol Pot from returning to power. "This is not anything that we have carefully worked out, by any means, or thought about to the degree, or extent of what is possible," he said, displaying a startling lack of follow-through.

Surely this is geopoliticism run amuck. Set aside for a moment whether Cambodia should have been seen as a superpower cockpit at all. Where else in the world are we continuing to pursue a policy which began as anti-Soviet and pro-Chinese? Not only have these two powers since swapped images--they're not even that mad at each other anymore. Remember that it was Gorbachev's visit to Beijing that forestalled the crackdown on the Tiananmen protesters.

While Vietnamese troops remained in Phnom Penh, the policy had some cover. It might have been asking too much of the U.S. body politic for it to condone the aggressive occupation of a neighbor by a country that had only lately been killing GIs. But it's 1990 now, and the Vietnamese have apparently pulled out and gone, leaving the Hun Sen regime they installed in their wake. It used to be that U.S. officials held out such a withdrawal as the goal they were after. As late as July 1988, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Gaston Sigur was telling Congress: "We have refrained from establishing normal diplomatic relations with Vietnam as a demonstration of our opposition to Vietnam's illegal occupation of Cambodia."

Is any change in U.S. attitude imminent? Probably not, if Secretary of State James Baker's comments on the subject early this year are indicative. At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee annual kickoff hearing, Sen. John Kerry questioned the continued full support of the tripartite resistance: "I'm deeply concerned that our current policy . . . is perhaps playing a greater role in facilitating the return of the Khmer Rouge than we would like." In reply, Secretary Baker held out the promise of a UN-negotiated political settlement. "I don't think that simply saying, well, let's recognize Hun Sen, let's talk to him now that Vietnam has left, is an answer that will get the U.S. where we want to go," said Baker. Where Baker, sponsor of two secret post-Tiananmen, high-level China missions, wants to go is Beijing.

Perhaps all parties involved will reach agreement on a transitional UN administration, and elections that cause the Khmer Rouge to fade gently into history will follow. Perhaps. But Sihanouk himself has said that a UN role could require that a multinational peacekeeping force--presumably to protect against the Khmer Rouge--remain in the country for 10 years or more.

Equally unlikely is a peace agreement calling for a transitional power-sharing arrangement among the three resistance factions and Hun Sen. Such an all-party coalition would be "extremely fragile and easily shattered so that it would not last long," judges a U.S. Army War College study.

Gathering evidence indicates that Hun Sen is neither an abandoned puppet nor a closet Khmer Rouge but the closest thing to a legitimate leader that the traumatized nation has had in many years.

Joel Charny, the regional director of Oxfam America, a nonprofit international agency that funds development and disaster relief in poor countries, was impressed by a visit to Cambodia earlier this year. As far as he could see, all Vietnamese troops and advisers had indeed left. In Phnom Penh "whole streets that were blocked off because Vietnamese advisers lived there are now open. People bicycle down them," he says. Charny says the most important thing is that Hun Sen has struggled to rebuild the country and shows little evidence of Khmer Rouge-like brutality. Compared to the tripartite resistance, "I'll take Hun Sen," says Charny.

Start a war, lose a turn

Throughout the years of the Reagan and Bush administrations, rhetoric against the Khmer Rouge has increased, but the policy of tacit support has persisted, as China continues to cast its large shadow over the problem. In deference to China, the ASEAN nations have taken a strong stand against Vietnam from the first days of the Cambodian operation.

Even so, Thailand, the ASEAN nation closest to the action, has shown more courage on this point than the United States has. Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan has hosted three Hun Sen visits, and in January, 90 Thai MPs delivered Chatichai a petition calling for the ouster of Cambodian guerrillas, including the Khmer Rouge, from Thai territory.

As for Prince Sihanouk, he is no longer the man he was. He seems a captive of the Khmer Rouge even as he denounces them. "The Prince's entourage is penetrated by the Khmer Rouge . . . his army is likewise penetrated in key positions. So it would be grossly imprudent not to regard him as to all intents and purposes a Khmer Rouge stooge," concludes John Pedler, a British journalist.

Somewhere along the way, the concept of morality was left out of U.S. approaches to Cambodia. There doesn't seem to be much weighing as to whether it is right to grope for a perceived advantage in the superpower game by allowing the most evil political faction in the world to continue to exist, not to mention to support it. It is not enough to say we abhor it and will throw it away when it is no longer militarily useful; the thing to be disposed of may not cooperate. Will they really just wither away, these men who have killed millions? In Washington, assistant secretaries like to think they are tough. In reality, they are men with drivers who cannot imagine the toughness of those in the jungle.

The problem is that so often there is legitimate moral ambiguity in foreign policy. Was it right to invade Panama, killing civilians and U.S. troops, if democracy was the result? Is it moral to take bread from the mouth of a worker in South Africa through economic sanctions, if the end is pressure on the white regime? Is covert lethal aid always wrong? If it is, what about our role in Afghanistan? These are arguable questions, and the Fletcher School of Diplomacy types who run U.S. foreign policy learn to set them aside to prevent paralysis so that they can focus on perceived national interest. That's what realpolitik is all about. If an ethical impact statement had to be compiled for every U.S. action in the world, there wouldn't be any.

As a result, the Fletcher class leaves its "moral judgment" switch off. When a policy rolls in that is clearly wrong, it still gets waved right on through the planning department. Most officials just aren't used to thinking in moral terms. The very phrase makes them uncomfortable, or impatient, or angry. They call it a simplistic way of looking at the world. It is, but that doesn't mean some policies aren't just plain wrong.

In Cambodia the U.S. has been playing "Diplomacy: The Exciting Game of International Intrigue." This is a real board game published by Avalon Hill--a classic, in which every participant can play Metternich with his schemes. "Diplomacy" appeals to the Washington policy class. (I know. I play it with them myself.) It is set in the year 1901, in Europe. Players become one of the Great Powers, and negotiate with the others to strike alliances, make attacks, and divide up the spoils. It is full of conversations such as this: "If you support my Army Ruhr into Belgium, Bill's Army Gascony will be forced to cover Brest, thereby preventing him from building a fleet and allowing you to move into the Mid-Atlantic in two turns to make a strategic thrust at Portugal and Spain."

The glow of laying schemes is the thing. They never work out--but, oh, weren't they brilliant?

This fallacy of statesmanship animates the U.S. approach to Cambodia. We have a scheme. The problem is, the Khmer Rouge have guns.

Peter Grier is the State Department and Pentagon correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.
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Title Annotation:Khmer Rouge of Cambodia
Author:Grier, Peter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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