Supping with Devils

September 1, 1991 Regions: Asia Tags: Sociology

Supping with Devils

Mini Teaser: The Cambodian ceasefire accord, reached in June at a meeting of the warring Cambodian parties at the Thai beach resort of Pattaya, was a promising step toward settlement of the country's long and bloody conflict.

by Author(s): Peter W. Rodman

The Cambodian ceasefire accord, reached in June at a meeting of the warring Cambodian parties at the Thai beach resort of Pattaya, was a promising step toward settlement of the country's long and bloody conflict.  The Communist regime in Phnom Penh and the three resistance groups arrayed against it (Sihanouk's National Army, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front, and the Communist Khmer Rouge) agreed to make a functioning reality of the Supreme National Council--representing all of them--that was called for in a United Nations peace plan last year.  The Council convened in Beijing in July under the chairmanship of Prince Norodom Sihanouk.  In principle, foreign arms supply to all sides is to stop and the UN is to play an important role in managing a transition to free elections.  Many issues remain to be settled, however.

The news from Cambodia seemed to fit a global pattern of encouraging developments in regions of tension.  It was as if the world were tying up all the loose ends of the Cold War conflicts left over from the 1970s.  So far in 1991 we have seen completion of Cuban and South African troop withdrawals from Angola, a political accord among the Angolans, Soviet abandonment of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, and now progress toward a Cambodian settlement.  This follows upon the 1990 democratic election in Nicaragua and the 1989 deadline for both the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan and the Vietnamese troop withdrawal from Cambodia.

The removal of foreign forces reduced the strategic danger that these conflicts posed.  But reconciliation among the internal parties is bound to be much harder.  Henry Kissinger once observed that no civil war in history ever ended in a coalition government.  Civil wars are usually for keeps.  Diplomacy in Cambodia, moreover, has been a challenge qualitatively different from the others--a Sisyphean struggle to reconcile the irreconcilable, to find a basis for compromise that will include a group that is dreaded by all the others as the embodiment of absolute evil.

The United States has had a weak hand from the beginning, and our lack of leverage is the most salient fact of the whole process.  Since Vietnam's invasion in 1978, we have rightly rejected the Phnom Penh regime as the bastard child of Hanoi.  We maintained economic sanctions against both Hanoi and Phnom Penh, and we rejected the Khmer Rouge, whose terror against their own people before they were ousted by Vietnam's invasion reached genocidal proportions (at least one million dead out of a population of seven million).

The Soviets armed Hanoi and Phnom Penh; China armed the Khmer Rouge against them.  But as resistance to the Vietnamese invaders spread, the United States could not bring itself to give substantial assistance to the noncommunist elements in the resistance--the decent people trapped in the middle, Sihanouk's National Army and the KPNLF, the remnant of Cambodian civil society that survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and who we can only assume represent the vast majority of the population.  In their struggle against the Phnom Penh regime, the noncommunists found themselves involuntarily in the frightening position of being the weaker party in an uneasy alignment with the Khmer Rouge.  They did receive some aid from the Chinese.

The military weakness of the noncommunist resistance (NCR) has assured the political dominance of the communist antagonists, and our corresponding lack of leverage over the course of events.  All the communist powers--the USSR, China, Vietnam, and their Cambodian clients--acted according to their own strategic necessities.  The war turned into a bloody stalemate.  Progress toward a settlement was glacial.  Diplomatically, the United States deferred to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which gave political backing to the NCR and indeed preferred that we stay in the background (given the limits of what we were prepared to do).  Australia also played a diplomatic role.

Policy and Politics

Why this absence of direct U.S. support?  Even the Reagan administration, champion of "freedom fighters" around the globe, shied away.  It feared a congressional outcry over the very idea of U.S. re-intervention in Indochina; its operational experts disparaged the fighting ability of the NCR (a reasonable judgment, but also self-fulfilling); it did not share the Nixon-Kissinger-Brzezinski sense of geopolitical partnership with China, which might have led it to see a larger stake in frustrating Soviet/Vietnamese hegemony.  Ironically, the pressure to do something came from Congress--more precisely, from Democratic Representative Stephen Solarz of New York.

Solarz was the author of an important article in the New York Times in June 1985 urging his fellow Democrats to be more "tough-minded" in the geopolitical arena.  Solarz became an enthusiastic supporter of the Afghan mujaheddin, for example. He disparaged the Nicaraguan and Angolan insurgents, but, to his everlasting credit, he adopted the Cambodians.  The administration went along with Solarz, providing the NCR with overt economic aid of about $5 million a year beginning in 1985, on top of a modest covert program (also non-lethal) that reached a reported $20 million a year.  It was not enough to be of decisive help.

The Bush administration continued the main lines of Reagan's regional policy, but with even less emotional commitment to the "freedom fighters."  With the withdrawals of external forces, these conflicts were seen to have lost much of their strategic significance.  The new administration saw the central strategic relationship with the Soviets--especially in Europe, where a dramatic upheaval was brewing--as more important than the declining competition on the periphery.

The first breakthrough in Cambodia--the Vietnamese troop withdrawal (a significant partial pullout in 1988 and then a complete withdrawal of combat troops by September 1989)--was therefore the product of forces at work in which the United States played no major part.  Certainly, Hanoi was feeling the continuing pain of its international isolation and the U.S. economic embargo.  But the new factor that broke the impasse was Gorbachev's drive for rapprochement with China.  If he removed what China called the "three obstacles" to Sino-Soviet relations--Afghanistan, Cambodia, and the border threat--he could gain a strategic coup with the Chinese.  So Gorbachev undoubtedly used his influence with the Vietnamese to push for a commitment to withdraw from Cambodia, and after it came he was invited for his historic May 1989 visit to Beijing.  Just as Brezhnev had subordinated Hanoi to U.S.-Soviet relations at the time of Nixon's Moscow summit in 1972 (when Nixon had just ordered the mining and bombing of North Vietnam), so Gorbachev subordinated Hanoi to the needs of Sino-Soviet relations in 1988-89. 

Various diplomatic efforts have been undertaken on behalf of Cambodia.  There was the idea of an informal "cocktail party" in 1987-88, first among the four groups of Cambodians, then with Vietnam present.  There were the "Jakarta Informal Meetings" in 1988 and 1989 (all the Indochinese parties plus ASEAN).  The Chinese and Vietnamese began talking on the subject in January 1989.  The issues in the negotiations did not change much: Hanoi, Phnom Penh, and their supporters sought to trade the Vietnamese troop withdrawal for a cutoff of external aid to the NCR; the Bush administration and ASEAN correctly insisted that a settlement had to be "comprehensive," resolving the internal political conflict (as well as controlling the military capability of the Khmer Rouge).  The resistance insisted on a real turnover of power to some new body in Phnom Penh in advance of any new elections; Phnom Penh refused any diminution of its control in the interim before elections.

Some form of compromise among the four Cambodian parties seemed essential for any settlement.  It was an uncomfortable conclusion for U.S. diplomacy because it meant, among other things, treating the Khmer Rouge as a party without whom a settlement was not possible.  This policy was soon under attack: the Bush administration found itself bitterly (and unfairly) accused of wanting to bring the Khmer Rouge into a coalition government.  Perversely, the small amounts of non-lethal aid we gave to the NCR were challenged as objectively helping the Khmer Rouge, since the NCR remained essentially weak and any erosion of Phnom Penh's control would arguably benefit mainly the Khmer Rouge.  Accusations were made (never substantiated) that significant U.S. material help provided to the NCR found its way into Khmer Rouge hands.  NCR forces in the field were said to be coordinating military moves with the Khmer Rouge and increasingly relying on them--which was probably true, but was obviously a function of their lack of independent support from us. 

The administration's diplomatic position and policy on the ground were thus both under assault.  It was urged to abandon the war against Phnom Penh and Hanoi, indeed to join with them in blocking the hated Khmer Rouge.

Gambling on Sihanouk

The policy of backing the noncommunist resistance was not without serious drawbacks and dangers.  The NCR never showed promise as an independent fighting force; it suffered from failures of leadership and discipline.  Our trying to ride two horses--opposing both Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge--was a risky gamble.  How could we possibly overthrow the one without removing the main barrier to the dominance of the other?  But the administration's true calculation was never well articulated, and the alternative proposed by its domestic critics was no real alternative at all.

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