WASHINGTON. — Last November 5 President Bush signed H.R. 5114, the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 1991 -- that is, the overall U.S. foreign-aid bill.
But he said he planned to ignore certain parts of the law, particularly Section 562A. That section ordered the Agency of International Development, the dispenser of much American aid, to assess the needs of ''all the people of Cambodia'' in distributing $20 million in aid to that broken country. The wording seems innocent enough, and God knows the 8 million people of Cambodia need all the help they can get after 21 years of war, horror and economic sanctions.
But the president has no intention of doing anything for the 8 million, who have spent 12 years subject to a government put in place by Vietnam after the Vietnamese army drove the murderous Khmer Rouge from power and into the mountainous jungles along Cambodia's frontier with Thailand. From there, with families and support facilities in refugee camps on the Thai side of the border, the Khmer Rouge is continuing a civil war against the Phnom Penh government.
There are 300,000 Cambodians up there, an estimated 36,000 of them soldiers in communist Khmer Rouge combat units, in political and military coalition with 13,000 other soldiers attached to groupings called the ''Non-Communist Resistance.'' Those 300,000 in what we have designated as the ''Liberated Zone'' on the Cambodian side of the border get American ''humanitarian'' aid -- roads, trucks, fuel, food, hospitals and even boots.
This is no secret in Cambodia or Thailand. At home, the White House long maintained the fiction that the Khmer Rouge, with most of the men, most of the weaponry and the higher morale of zealotry, was not getting any of the U.S. humanitarian aid. But on the Thailand side of the border, where the Americans operate, they also talk. ''I have to feed the military, clothe the military,'' said an important American official there. ''That's my job; that's why I'm here.''
So it is. He is following the president's orders, which were clearly tTC restated when Mr. Bush signed the Foreign Operations Act: ''I have no objection to sending an AID team to certain areas along the Thai-Cambodian border, and from there that team can gather information about the considerations along the border and in Cambodia itself.''
Leaving aside the fact that once again the U.S. Congress is revealed as an impotent national joke, making laws that the president feels safely comfortable in ignoring, there is nothing but jungle to be seen from the Thai border in the northwest. Most of the people of Cambodia live, very badly, in the southern parts. A few million dollars in hard currency spent there for food, medicine and well-drilling rigs to pump clean water would literally save the lives of thousands and thousands of women and children -- the Cambodians left alive after the Khmer Rouge starved and slaughtered the men.
But U.S. humanitarian aid in Southeast Asia has nothing to do with saving lives. It does not have much to do with our public devotion to an ongoing United Nations peace process and elections in Cambodia. Nor does it even have much to do with our traditional goal of fighting communism, since both the Khmer Rouge and the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh are communist. So why is the president of the United States using American taxpayers' money in a mini-geopolitical game that could lead to the revival of the most murderous regime of modern times, the Khmer Rouge?
There are three reasons:
* A cadre of U.S. officials in Washington, and the president seems to be one of them, are still fighting the war in Vietnam. Our gripe with Cambodia is that it was invaded and occupied until two years ago by the Vietnamese. Once we thought we could save Vietnam by destroying it. Now we think we can save it by destroying Cambodia.
* We seem to be incapable of following any policy that might offend China. The Chinese and the Vietnamese are ancient rivals in that part of the world and Beijing is the true patron of the Khmer Rouge, supplying the tanks that Khmer Rouge battalions in American boots hope to drive down American-built roads to Phnom Penh.
* The United States, in the words of one American official I interviewed, must have ''a seat at the table'' when the fate of Cambodia is finally decided in war or at a U.N. peace conference. This administration, probably any administration, lives in terror that our status as a superpower, the only one now, might be compromised by regional decision-making in Europe, the Middle East or Southeast Asia.
George Bush does not want the Khmer Rouge back in power any more than he wants Iran running what used to be Iraq. But he is willing to gamble our money and their lives that our games will not lead to more Cambodian killing fields. If he miscalculates, so be it. Our casualties will be low to none. The people killed, once again, will only be Cambodians. And, with luck, a few Vietnamese, too.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist. This concludes a three-part report on Cambodia.