The Bush administration is seeking to build a consensus here for limited lethal assistance to Cambodia's Non-Communist Resistance. The decision to pursue this option was leaked prematurely to the New York Times late last week, forcing the administration to shift into high gear to contact key legislators. The administration had hoped to begin congressional consultations before any publicity.
Congressional activists are divided on the idea. Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York, chairman of the House Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, favors arms aid as a way to strengthen the Non-Communist Resistance (NCR) relative to the two more powerful communist forces in Cambodia - the Vietnamese-installed Hun Sen government and the notorious Khmer Rouge.
Two key senators, Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island and Alan Cranston (D) of California, have raised red flags. They say the arms could fall into Khmer Rouge hands because of its political alliance with the NCR. Senator Cranston has scheduled a hearing for June 12.
Some congressional aides and private specialists contend that rather than arming the NCR to fight the Hun Sen government, the US should encourage a reconciliation between the two forces in order to oppose the Khmer Rouge.
US officials do not exclude that outcome. But they say the aim of US policy is to give the NCR as much leverage as possible in this key negotiating period before the scheduled Sept. 30 Vietnamese troop withdrawal. NCR leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk is trying to hammer out a political transition with the Hun Sen regime.
``We're also trying to help strengthen the NCR in case the Khmer Rouge acts up in the process leading up to a political settlement and in the post-settlement period,'' a ranking US official says.
The administration hopes to find common ground with Congress, perhaps by assurances that lethal aid will not fall into Khmer Rouge hands and by spelling out the limited types of equipment being considered, reportedly assault rifles and ammunition.