PRESIDENT REAGAN's raising of the Cambodian issue at the Moscow summit is an encouraging sign of United States interest in finding a solution to that country's plight. But the US is too quiet about the murderous Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for killing more than a million Cambodians after 1975 and loom as a threat to any new government in Cambodia, once the Vietnamese withdraw. Hanoi's announcement last week that it will withdraw 50,000 troops by the end of the year and place the remaining 75,000 under command of the surrogate Hun Sen regime and Phnom Penh makes it even more important that the US speak out unequivocally against the possibility of the Khmer Rouge's returning to power.
The administration's relative passivity on the Khmer Rouge is interpreted as indifference and perpetuates an image of American policy held hostage to bilateral relations with China, the Khmer Rouge's political patron. The Chinese understand the nature of their clients but have decided that their first priority is to bleed Vietnam and to support whichever forces are strongest in Cambodia against Hanoi. The 35,000 battle-hardened guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge remain the main resistance pressure. They would also be the most powerful element in any coalition government in Cambodia, unless its leadership is removed and its military capability neutralized by China and Thailand.
The normally aggressive Khmer Rouge forces have for months avoided contacts with the Vietnamese Army, conserving their strength for fighting in the future against any coalition partners, particularly Prince Norodom Sihanouk, or the Vietnamese as they withdraw. Throughout the Cambodian countryside, the Khmer Rouge are stockpiling arms and ammunition which China continues to provide in abundance. They have learned new political tactics from their earlier mistakes but have lost none of their fanatical zeal or brutality. Bland Chinese assurances to Americans that the horrors of the past will not be repeated are at least open to strong question.
The US cannot compel China to cut off the Khmer Rouge totally and immediately, nor should we break with the strategy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations of keeping pressure on Vietnam to negotiate. The US cannot, as some observers believe, become Vietnam's prime negotiating partner in seeking a Cambodian settlement. But the US can make its weight felt as the Cambodian conflict lurches slowly toward resolution by adamantly opposing the Pol Pot organization's return to any position of influence and by supporting multilateral efforts designed to forestall such a tragedy.
Secretary of State George Shultz has in the past expressed US opposition to the Khmer Rouge, and he will certainly want to do so again in July at the ASEAN ministerial consultations in Bangkok. But he should also press for a precise scenario on how the Khmer Rouge's odious role can be diminished and eventually eliminated in the context of a political settlement.
The administration should urge Peking to halt further arms shipments to the Khmer Rouge and press the Thais to do the same. The critical unanswered questions that stand in the way of a resolution in Cambodia are how and in what sequence Vietnamese troops and advisers withdraw and how the Khmer Rouge are defanged. These two questions are closely linked; the US should make clear that it is not prepared to leave the political and moral high ground to Hanoi and the Soviet Union in vigorously opposing any role for Pol Pot's men in Cambodia. This means that the process of weakening the Khmer Rouge should start now.
Indochina is littered with the remains of failed coalition regimes. The US must repair its policy on preventing another disaster at the hands either of the Khmer Rouge or the Vietnamese. The noncommunist faction in whatever Cambodian coalition emerges must be sustainable. At the right time, the US should be willing to commit money, human resources, and political energy to this effort.
In Afghanistan, our objective was to get the Soviets out, even at the price of further fighting among the Afghans. In Cambodia we want the Vietnamese out, but we must have the additional objective of averting intra-Cambodian fighting, which, if the Khmer Rouge are not neutralized, could be genocidal. We owe no less to the Cambodian people.
Frederick Z. Brown and Paul H. Kreisberg, senior associates at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, write on US policy toward East Asia and the Pacific.