WASHINGTON — THINGS ARE never what they seem in Cambodia, but there's a gambler's chance that tortured land is about to enjoy its first taste of peace in a generation.
If so, the end of the Cold War is mainly responsible. Some credit goes, however, to the Bush State Department. In the last few months, it has operated with totally unexpected skill in that Byzantine corner of Southeast Asia.
Cambodia's agonies always have been inflicted from the outside. We invaded and bombed the daylights out of it during the Vietnam War. China backed the radical Khmer Rouge that ousted our puppet Lon Nol government there. Vietnamese communists, bankrolled by the Soviet Union, then moved in to defeat the Khmer Rouge, exile Pol Pot and install their own puppets.
Armed by China, the Khmer Rouge fought on as guerrillas in a loose confederation with two tooth-less bands we supported as a third alternative under Prince Sihanouk, the flaky survivor who had ruled the country in happier times.
Sufficiently confused? Well, the key point is that all three of the warring forces were superpower pawns of the U.S., China and the Soviet Union. None had much to do with the Cambodian people. None was viable on its own.
Editorialists and politicians of left and right in this country reserved their indignation for the Khmer Rouge. These were the really bad guys, perpetrators of "The Killing Fields," easy to hate. A good scolding from the U.S. would blow the Khmer Rouge away, the arm-chair strategists argued. Toward that end, they were happy to embrace the puppet government of Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge and a practiced violator of human rights.
To its credit, the State Department recognized that reality, not symbolism, would carry the day. The reality was the Khmer Rouge fielded the only effective troops. Unless the Chinese could be persuaded to cut off their arms, they'd end up running the country.
So the U.S. backed an Australian plan to set up an interim government of all three factions, under U.N. auspices, pending an election. Hun Sen did not want to play, but with the Soviet Union cutting off his Vietnam backing, he had no choice. China came along, and now there's agreement on the U.N. solution.
Happy ever after? Not necessarily. Nobody has yet volunteered to pay the check. Supervising the disarming of all these armies and running the country until an election can be held could cost $5 billion.
The United States is a halt-billion behind in its U.N. dues, nearly bankrupt and involved in a costly military effort in the Persian Gulf.
Our bleeding hearts moan about the inclusion of the Khmer Rouge. They'd like to hand the whole ball of wax to Hun Sen, who's fully as trust-worthy as Saddam Hussein. The Khmer Rouge would topple him within a couple of years in any case.
All this may muddle through to some reasonable conclusion in spite of itself, mainly because the big powers are bone-weary of the mess they've made. High time.' No one in recent history, not even the Lebanese, has suffered as much as the people of Cambodia.