Global Policy Forum

A Cold War Hangover in US on Cambodia


By Roger Cohen

International Herald Tribune
April 9, 2005

The cold war is still with us. Its harsh legacy - the lies it generated, the cruelty and the hypocrisy - shade views of America around the world. Nowhere is this bitter fruit more palpable than in Cambodia, a nation that became a plaything of the great powers and suffered a terrible fate. I noted in an earlier column that the United States is barred by congressional legislation from providing any financial assistance to a long-delayed United Nations-backed tribunal to try those chiefly responsible for crimes of the communist Khmer Rouge that led to the deaths of more than 1.5 million people.

This extraordinary American refusal to give any money for a court that might bring some Cambodians a belated sense of justice for the most sweeping crime since Hitler's genocide amounts to the latest twist in a tangled U.S. policy whose main characteristic has been incoherence. In the many surrogate wars against the Soviet Union, one principle held wide sway: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It was a principle that got America in bed with a bunch of what, in the current Washington parlance, would be called "bad guys." Chilean generals and African dictators were just fine, so long as they hated the Reds.

In Cambodia, the principle had particularly unhappy consequences. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot's hideous regime in 1979, the United States saw an opportunity to let Vietnam (and behind, it the Soviet Union) bleed by giving a measure of behind-the-scenes support for the Khmer Rouge. If the Khmer Rouge kept their United Nations seat, it was also because America favored that. If resistance to Vietnam proved persistent, it was also because China, encouraged by Washington, provided military aid to the Khmer Rouge and America gave financial support to the noncommunist forces battling alongside Pol Pot's boys against the Vietnamese.

As Cambodia's Prince Sihanouk, addressing the United States, put it later, "Pol Pot was dying, but you brought him back to life." He added: "But now you say the Khmer Rouge are unacceptable. What hypocrisy! What hypocrisy!" Sihanouk, the ultimate survivor, is no stranger to hypocrisy himself. Still, his words bear some pondering at a time when perceived hypocrisy is one of the main charges leveled against the United States around the world. Hypocrisy in the longtime selective American advocacy of democracy, particularly in the Middle East. Hypocrisy in the shifting nature of the declared American aims in the Iraq war. Hypocrisy in advocating values not evident at the prison for terror suspects in Guantánamo Bay.

Cambodia is too marginal to figure on this list. But the fact is that, in the light of a past that can make no American proud, the U.S. approach to a tribunal on which the United Nations and Cambodia have agreed amounts to another chapter in a squalid saga. The current incoherence was summed up by the American ambassador, Charles Ray, in an interview: "The administration, the executive branch, still very much thinks that having the tribunal to put that period to rest is a good idea. But we have to abide by the view of Congress. When Congress passes a law, the administration has no option but to comply."

That is true. But I am sure that President George W. Bush is losing little sleep over the law against funding the tribunal and no time in seeking ways to circumvent it. America has a short attention span - another source of global criticism. So why does this law exist? Its most vehement supporter is Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and a man who has spent time in Cambodia. The influential staff director of that committee is Paul Grove, whose dislike of the current Cambodian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is ferocious.

Grove spent several years in Cambodia in the mid-1990s working with the International Republican Institute (IRI) to promote democracy. In 1997, a friend of his, Ron Abney, then the chief IRI representative in Cambodia, sustained a shrapnel wound when grenades were thrown at an opposition rally against Hun Sen. At least 16 people were killed. The Cambodian authorities never made a serious attempt to investigate. But Grove, like many others, has no doubt that Hun Sen's government was the instigator. It is fair to say that the prime minister's remarkable staying power - he boasts two decades in power - has involved its share of ruthlessness.

It is also fair to say that Grove still seethes with anger. He sees Cambodia as a land of impunity and galloping corruption run by a malevolent strongman, a place incapable of being host to a credible international tribunal. Grove is damned if the man behind the shrapnel in his buddy Abney's backside is to get even a buck. Such anger is easy enough to understand, but it is unhelpful, and given the grand scale of Cambodian horrors, ridiculous. The 1997 incident was appalling but pales by comparison with the Khmer Rouge horrors of 1975-79.

Hun Sen is no angel, no Westminster democrat, but he has brought stability, economic opening, and a degree of hope to Cambodia. American pragmatism in dealing with him is essential. It is essential in part because the United States has a historic responsibility to help get the promised Khmer Rouge trial started. For that, the congressional ban on funding the court should be lifted and intense U.S. monitoring maintained of how money is spent and how the trial progresses. To do otherwise would compound hypocrisy with hypocrisy, giving ammunition to America's enemies. As Ray said of American policy in Asia: "We need to listen better, we need to factor in the aspirations and views of our bilateral partners here a little better. And we need to remember we are not the only ones on the dance floor. It's two people dancing, and we need to do a better job of respecting their views, of listening to them."

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the Special Tribunal for Cambodia
More Information on International Criminal Tribunals and Special Courts


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.