Iraq Was the Lesser of Two Evils

SYDNEY H. SCHANBERG

March 10, 1991|By SYDNEY H. SCHANBERG

Now that the war with former friend Iraq is over, I got to wondering whether President Bush would ride the momentum and take our troops directly to Cambodia to wipe out yet another embarrassment.

I speak of the Khmer Rouge, like Iraq a foul regime to which the United States has given aid and comfort. And think of the certain moral high ground to be gained, for Pol Pot's genocidal atrocities make Saddam Hussein look like a wimp.

It was only a thought. I know Mr. Bush isn't going after the Khmer Rouge. That's because they're the creatures of our good friends, the dictators of China -- and Mr. Bush wants to keep the dictators of China happy, no matter how many students they slaughter.

To get back to the Khmer Rouge, who saw to the deaths of perhaps 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979, Mr. Bush says he doesn't like them, but the trouble is, he likes the Vietnamese less. The Vietnamese are the ones who drove the Khmer Rouge out of power in Cambodia in 1979 and installed a friendly government in Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge now operate as a guerrilla army in the remote areas and jungles of Cambodia, attacking government troops and sowing thousands of land mines that blow up Cambodian civilians on a daily basis.

Mr. Bush, though, doesn't pay much heed to this continuing slaughter, for he is too busy trying to punish Vietnam for winning the war that the United States still hasn't come to terms with. One of the punishments is the ongoing, and effective, U.S.-led economic embargo against Vietnam -- and also against the Cambodian government, because it is Vietnam's ally.

Over the years, the United States has come to the aid of the Khmer Rouge in fundamental ways -- all to punish Vietnam and keep China happy.

When other nations were beginning to bridle because the Khmer Rouge were still occupying the Cambodian seat at the United Nations even after they had been ousted from power, the United States quieted the rumblings and, through an arranged marriage of the Khmer Rouge with two non-Communist guerrilla groups, gave the genocidal goons enough paper respectability to hold on to the seat. And they still hold it.

Every once in a while, there will be some stories in the newspapers or a documentary on television or questions from some congressmen about our relationship with the Khmer Rouge -- just like those occasional questions over the years about our ties to Saddam Hussein -- and the White House would get embarrassed in a minor way and throw a bone to the critics.

For example, the Khmer Rouge flag used to fly in that long row of member nations' flags outside the United Nations. The United States, in one of those moments of embarrassment, had it replaced with a Cambodian "coalition" flag.

Washington gives aid to the two non-Communist guerrilla groups that are part of that coalition with the Khmer Rouge. The Bush administration and congressional supporters are forever denying that any of this aid ever reaches the Khmer Rouge or even indirectly provides moral support to them. They also deny that any of the aid is of the military variety.

They play a disingenuous semantic game. The non-Communists get their military aid from American clients -- such as Singapore and Malaysia. Another American client, Thailand, gives aid and sanctuary to the Khmer Rouge army.

The Khmer Rouge and the non-Communist factions conduct joint military operations against the Cambodian government, with the Khmer Rouge as the dominant force. And yet U.S. officials brazenly have kept shouting that the non-Communist guerrillas always fought independently and never in coordination with the Khmer Rouge. Therefore, said these sanctimonious hypocrites,

the United States had not -- not ever, not even indirectly or remotely -- given the slightest smidgen of aid or comfort to the Khmer Rouge.

So they've said -- until now. Recently, the White House made a stunning admission in a report to Congress. Yes, the White House conceded, the non-Communist guerrillas we support sometimes fight in joint operations alongside the Khmer Rouge.

Oh, the admission was magnificently weasel-worded and it was, of course, released in the middle of the victory news from Iraq, in the obvious hope that it would get lost or ignored by a press corps overwhelmed by the war story.

As for the weasel wording, try the following from the White House report: "Where the military activities of the three resistance forces have overlapped during the past year, they have nonetheless been politically competitive."

Or: "Given the relatively weaker military capabilities of the non-Communist forces and the superiority of Khmer Rouge supplies, any military benefits of activities that might constitute cooperation would have accrued largely to the NCR [non-Communist] units."

Let's see if I understand this. These groups work together -- our side and the guys who slaughtered the Cambodian people -- but our side doesn't help them. They help us. Should we send them a letter of thanks? Excuse me, Mr. President, is this the new world order?

Sydney Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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