THE Bush administration is prepared to place its bets on Prince Norodom Sihanouk to lead Cambodia out of its political dilemma. This seriously misreads Prince Sihanouk; his record of failure and egotism scarcely warrants confidence. This year Sihanouk became alarmed that successful diplomatic moves by the Heng Samrin/Hun Sen People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) regime in Phnom Penh might lead to the PRK's acceptance by the international community as Cambodia's legitimate government. Although the United Nations General Assembly had endorsed the Prince's resistance organization, the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK), for the Cambodian seat in 1988, two developments worried Sihanouk.
First, Sino-Soviet rapprochement appeared on the horizon. The specter arose - although it did not materialize at the May summit in Beijing - that China and other powers might accept a settlement leaving the Heng Samrin/Hun Sen government in place.
Second, Hun Sen, the dynamic 37-year-old premier and foreign minister, knows that the notorious Khmer Rouge, until now Sihanouk's ``ally,'' is an embarrassment to the Prince, as its brutal 1975-78 rule was almost universally condemned by the international community. Hun Sen shrewdly pointed out that the expected departure of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia would result in a power vacuum that the relatively large and well-armed Khmer Rouge would hasten to fill. It is imperative, he insisted, that the Phnom Penh government remain in power ``to maintain social order and manage economic life'' during any transition period.
Hun Sen's warnings undoubtedly had an impact. This spring the Bush administration announced it would seek to increase United States assistance to the noncommunist resistance factions, including arms. Hun Sen, moreover, managed to derail a Western proposal to maintain in Cambodia a UN peacekeeping force during elections and transition, a device to prevent manipulation of the elections by the present Phnom Penh regime. Sihanouk settled for a vague ``international control mechanism.''
Uneasy over Hun Sen's progress, Sihanouk withdrew his resignation from the CGDK and resumed his presidency of the uneasy ``coalition'' last year. In March he formed a new council to ensure cooperation among the three resistance factions.
By May the Prince appeared to have capitulated, however. During talks with Hun Sen in Jakarta, Sihanouk said he is willing to return to Cambodia as head of state, even if he must abandon his Khmer Rouge and noncommunist allies and engage in a partnership with the Heng Samrin/Hun Sen regime. His terms: that the PRK carry out constitutional changes already announced (private-property rights, a free market, foreign investment provisions, adoption of Buddhism as the state religion, change of the nation's name back to Cambodia), and he attached two further conditions: (1) acceptance of a constitutional amendment to assure multiparty electoral politics, and (2) creation of a four-party government during the transition to free elections.
Assume that Hun Sen manages by negotiation to keep his regime in power during a transition period and that Sihanouk becomes head of state. The People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea and the Khmer Rouge each enjoy significant constituencies among the populace, and each advocates specific, radical economic and political agendas. Sihanouk, in contrast, has no economic agenda beyond assuring private-property rights. His political ``philosophy'' is limited to extreme nationalism within a vague multiparty political environment that he would control.
The Prince's proclivity to personalize politics dates back to 1955 when, as king and enjoying great prestige, he asked ``his nation'' via national referendum to evaluate his performance. He won, as he expected, and immediately sought to reinforce his image as the ultimate symbol of nationalism. He abdicated his kingship to his father to engage in partisan politics. As Prince Sihanouk, he formed a new political organization, the People's Socialist Community. It reflected elements of populism and fascism, glorified the Khmer nation and Buddhism, opposed ``injustice'' and, at that time, stressed loyalty to the monarchy.
Sihanouk's record is one of unswerving effort to centralize and personalize political authority. Endowed by royal birth and clothed in the sanctity of his nationhood-seeking missions, he has avoided accountability for failures when he governed, and for what must categorized as frequent irresponsible acts and statements since.
The Prince's personal luster soon wears off at close hand, however. Lon Nol deposed the Prince in 1970. The succeeding Khmer Rouge government pensioned him off in 1975. Sihanouk has opposed Heng Samrin's PRK for 10 years, but now seems to be embracing it.
Clearly the Prince will identify with any faction, regardless of ideology, to maintain his popular image. At this point the competing political factions need Sihanouk because of his popular image. Whether they will continue to love him - as a chief of state who aspires to personal power - within a possible but unlikely multifactional environment, or will simply use him, as previously, is an open question.
A settlement in Cambodia, however tenuous, is likely. The Soviets, the Chinese, the ASEAN partners, Vietnam, and the international community all want to erase the issue from their agendas. A solution dependent upon Sihanouk is another matter.