What created the Khmer Rouge? (updated)

Aug 22 2007 Published by under [Politics]

One of my major irritations in life is feeling like I know better than supposed 'experts' in a particular job or field of study -- even though I know absolutely nothing about the job or field in question. A few years ago, I took my car back to the dealer because the power steering was crapping out every time I went over railroad tracks. The dealership listened patiently to my story, rebooted the car's computer system and told me everything was fixed. The steering problem was clearly a mechanical problem, which was confirmed the very next time I went over the railroad tracks.

The reason I mention this? CNN reports that Bush is going to start invoking Vietnam when he argues against troop withdrawal:

"Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields,' " the president will say.

My first instinct on reading this was, "Wow; Rove is gone for less than a week and already the White House has decided that a winning political strategy is to connect Iraq and Vietnam. I guess he really was “Bush’s brain”. But by all means, Mr. Bush, bring on the analogy. I’m thinking you’ll be surprised at the reception you’ll get!"

The 'killing fields' comment caught my eye, as it did Josh Marshall's at TPM:

More concretely though, didn't the killing fields happen in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge rather than Vietnam? So doesn't that complicate the analogy a bit? And didn't that genocide actually come to an end when the Communist Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime? The Vietnamese Communists may have been no great shakes. But can we get through one of these boneheaded historical analogies while keeping at least some of the facts intact?

Perhaps more significant, though, is the fact that Bush got the cause-effect relationship backwards: it was not our withdrawal from Vietnam that created the Khmer Rouge; rather, our presence in the region, and our massive bombing of Cambodia, that led to the formation and strengthening of the movement. Via Wikipedia:

Historians have cited the U.S. intervention and bombing campaign (spanning 1965-1973) as a significant factor leading to increased support of the Khmer Rouge among the Cambodian peasantry. Historian Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen have used a combination of sophisticated satellite mapping, recently unclassified data about the extent of bombing activities, and peasant testimony, to argue that there was a strong correlation between villages targeted by U.S. bombing and recruitment of peasants by the Khmer Rouge. Kiernan and Owen argue that “Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began,[3]. In his study of Pol Pot’s rise to power, Kiernan argues that “Pol Pot’s revolution would not have won power without U.S. economic and military destabilisation of Cambodia” and that the U.S. carpet bombing “was probably the most significant factor in Pol Pot’s rise.”

In other words, the U.S. was a destabilizing force in the region that directly led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. These statements came from a historian at Yale who has written a number of books on that black era of Cambodian history. Former Khmer members are on the record explaining how the U.S. bombings were a great recruitment tool:

Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched...Terrified and half crazy, the
people were ready to believe what they were told...Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.

This illustrates how bad Bush's argument is regarding our role in the Iraq region. The analogy would suggest that our presence in Iraq is not 'keeping a lid on things' as much as it is radicalizing a population which might otherwise not become combatants. If one doubts the influence of U.S. bombs in Cambodia on the country's evolution, look at the illustration of our (known) bombing of the country. We dropped almost 3 million tons of explosives on the country.

Again, I'm no expert on Cambodia. A half-second's thought about the U.S.'s role in the region led me to a completely different conclusion than Bush, a conclusion supported by historians.

This brings us back to the unanswerable question about the Bush administration: fundamentally dishonest, or incredibly stupid? The world will probably never know for sure.

Update:  Something implicitly suggested by my post, but worth making explicit:  One of the most offensive things about Bush's mention of the 'killing fields' is the implication that somehow or other the U.S. cared about what was happening to Cambodia.  Clearly, our use of literally indiscriminate carpet-bombing demonstrates that not only did we not give a damn about Cambodians, but were in essence trying to kill plenty of them ourselves.  I hope Cambodia picks up on Bush's comments and gives him a (diplomatic) middle finger.

4 responses so far

  • The Girlfriend says:

    The administration itself is fundamentally dishonest and Bush is ignorant and arrogant - a horrible combination.

  • Personal Demon says:

    SkySkull wrote: "...by all means, Mr. Bush, bring on the analogy. I’m thinking you’ll be surprised at the reception you’ll get!”"

    ... and not surprisingly, Vietnam is not amused.

  • skullsinthestars says:

    PD wrote: "… and not surprisingly, Vietnam is not amused."

    Yeah, I figured something like that would happen. I guessed that Cambodia might have a few words, but the 'killing fields' are still a touchy subject to discuss, I imagine.

    From Vietnam's point of view, they were the victors in the war. Bush must sound like a kid who stamps his feet and shouts "Cheater!" when he loses a boardgame. Kind of like I (jokingly) always accuse Critter of doing when he beats me at a game...

  • Cambodia says:

    As a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, I can't say I'm too enthusiastic about the current tribunal. Trying a handful of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders is unlikely to deliver neither justice nor closure for Cambodians. After all, Pot Pol and many top leaders have already died peacefully in their sleeps. Not on trial are the countless lower level KR cadres who were "just following orders".