COURTING disaster. The expression does not simply mean that disaster may occur. It means that we are sending flowers, singing serenades, and writing love letters trying to win the commitment of someone or something that will prove to be our worst nightmare rather than the answer to our dreams. I fear the United States is courting disaster in Cambodia. I believe that the central elements of current policy toward Cambodia will lead to continued success of the Khmer Rouge and the denial of freedom to the people of Cambodia.
The Bush administration no doubt genuinely desires to keep Pol Pot, who is still leading the Khmer Rouge forces, from returning to power. And the administration sincerely desires to see the people of Cambodia enjoy free and fair elections. However, a continuation of current policy will not get the job done.
First, let me say that the change of policy announced July 18 by Secretary of States James Baker after a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze contains some good things:
It shifts the US away from its decade-long support of seating a coalition government in the United Nations that includes the Khmer Rouge.
It eases licensing restrictions on humanitarian projects in Vietnam and in Cambodia. This is a wonderful change that should help save some lives.
It implements the program established by Congress designed to send US assistance to Cambodian children who are victims of the war.
However, the US is still courting disaster in Cambodia.
We are doing two things that will bolster the Khmer Rouge militarily and politically:
1.Our support for an insurgent war against the current government of Cambodia by continuing to aid the noncommunist resistance is not strengthening the hand of the noncommunists; rather, it is strengthening the military hand of the Khmer Rouge.
This situation is not comparable to the aid to the contras or other such insurgencies that have battled governments the US did not like. In those situations we supported an insurgency we hoped would win; in this situation we are supporting two parts of a three-part insurgency that we hope does not win.
In the case of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge are also battling against the Hun Sen government, and their military capacity vastly exceeds that of the KPNLF or Prince Sihanouk's forces. American policymakers who believe we should continue to support the noncommunist resistance should consider the question: Whom do you expect to take power if the Hun Sen government is overthrown by force?
This is a difficult issue because the noncommunists do deserve our political and material support. However, even if the People's Republic of China were to end all support of the Khmer Rouge (which is unlikely), the Khmer Rouge is still likely to be the principle beneficiary of a successful guerrilla campaign.
Thus, we are courting disaster because our continued support for the principle of using insurgent warfare to destabilize the government of Hun Sen legitimizes the Khmer Rouge's effort. The potential for a tragic outcome is great.
2.Our announced intention to open discussions with the Vietnamese about Cambodia strengthens the political message of the Khmer Rouge. They have been organizing around a fierce nationalist, anti-Vietnamese, anti-corruption message. The Cambodian people have intense negative feelings about the Vietnamese. Our ``collaboration'' with the Vietnamese will become a battle cry for committed Khmer Rouge fighters.
I welcome this dialogue with the Vietnamese government for other reasons. I believe it may help us with other problems. But it courts disaster in Cambodia.
A large part of our problem is that we have placed most of the information about what is going on in Cambodia under that rug called national security. It is classified information, and unless you have gained a special security clearance (or have been elected to Congress, which is a frightening thought for those concerned about genuinely important secrets) American citizens do not know what is going on. As a result of being kept in the dark, Americans have a difficult time reaching good, independent conclusions on their own.
Another problem for Americans is that we still tend to believe we can solve other people's problems from thousands of miles away. If we'll just have a meeting with other world leaders, we ought to be able to work these things out - so we think. We put meetings and conferences and summits at the top of the list when we are trying to decide what should be done.
We forget to do the most important thing first: declare those truths that we hold to be self-evident - that people have a right to form their own government and to be free from the tyranny of that government. Our values and our experience in forming democratic institutions, along with the experience of world leaders like Vaclav Havel, who can teach us again what it means to be imprisoned for political beliefs, must be laid upon the table before any other attempts are made.
I strongly believe that the US should take two additional steps with regard to Cambodia, along with the changes announced by Secretary Baker on July 18:
First, lift the economic restrictions that prevent American businesses from forming partnerships and investing in Cambodia. Nothing spreads our values faster than economic contacts. Understand that I am not advocating most-favored-nation status for Cambodia. Nor would we be expressing our support for the government of Cambodia in taking this step; we would merely be saying we do not regard Cambodia as an enemy.
Second, exchange interest sections with the government of Cambodia. Again, this does not mean we approve of the government of Cambodia. It does mean that we would be getting our information on what is going on inside Cambodia directly rather than through Soviet and East European diplomats. This does not prevent us from continuing to pressure the Phnom Penh regime to reform its political system by establishing free and fair elections, protecting individual dissent, and guaranteeing human rights.
These two moves are not ends in themselves. They are the means to an end. We must continue to argue for the sovereign rights of Cambodia to remain independent from Vietnam and other outside forces. The Association of Southeastern Asian Nations and the UN should be the instrument of this guarantee.
I recently spent over a week in Indochina, where I visited refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, met with Cambodian leaders in Phnom Penh, and traveled through the countryside. I had many conversations with high government officials in Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Hanoi. But the most indelible event was my visit to a hospital in Phnom Penh where I saw children dying of typhoid and denque fever, children who I knew would be dead by the time I had finished my visit. I believe more strongly than ever that we can help the Cambodian people work through their problems.
I believe America has both the opportunity and the moral responsibility to take an active role in addressing the problems facing the Cambodian people, problems that have taken a back seat to civil war. But first we must take steps needed to move away from the disaster we are still approaching in Cambodia.
We should not labor under the illusion that our actions will end the fighting in Cambodia. A comprehensive peace agreement is a much more elusive goal in Cambodia than it was in Angola, Namibia, or Nicaragua. The Khmer Rouge are committed communist insurgents who are not going to go away quickly.
We should likewise not underestimate the importance of our physical presence in Cambodia. Trade and diplomatic contact will produce a two-way street that will enable American democratic values to be heard and take root.