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Does the U.S. Owe Cambodia an Apology?

Kudos to President Obama for not using his recent trip to Cambodia as an opportunity to apologize for supposed American sins of the past. His failure to do so must come as a grave disappointment to New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker (an excellent reporter, by the way), who writes an entire article lamenting the lack of an Obama apology.

His piece begins thus: “Four decades after American warplanes carpet-bombed this impoverished country, an American president came to visit for the first time. He came not to defend the past, nor to apologize for it. In fact, he made no public mention of it whatsoever.” He then quotes approvingly from the president of a group known as the Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia who claims that Obama “should offer a public apology to the Cambodian people for the illegal U.S. bombings, which took the lives of half a million Cambodians and created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge genocide.” He also quotes Gary Bass, a historian at Princeton who has written an excellent history of humanitarian interventions, who says, “It’s a missed opportunity for Obama.”

Actually, Obama was right not to apologize because it’s not clear what America has to apologize for in this instance. It is grossly misleading to suggest that the U.S. “carpet-bombed” Cambodia, which evokes images of B-52s pummeling Phnom Penh. What actually happened was that during Operation Menu in 1969-1970, the U.S. bombed North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong base camps in eastern Cambodia with the tacit acquiescence of Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Sihanouk, who was deeply unhappy with the uninvited presence of tens of thousands of Communist Vietnamese troops in his country. Along with the bombing there were several “secret” incursions by South Vietnamese and U.S. troops in 1970 to try to clear out Communist base camps.

The notion that the American bombing somehow made the takeover of the genocidal Khmer Rouge inevitable–in some account by supposedly driving them insane–is farfetched. The Khmer Rouge had been fighting to take over the country since the early 1950s with the active support of the Communist regimes in Hanoi, Beijing and Moscow. The massive incursion of Vietnamese troops into Cambodia in the 1960s, which they used as a staging area for attacks into South Vietnam, further destabilized the country. But what really made the Communist triumph inevitable was the fact that the U.S. Congress cut off aid to the anticommunist regime led by Lon Nol (who overthrew Sihanouk in 1970) as part of the general backlash against the Vietnam War.

The rise of the Khmer Rouge was not a reaction to the American bombing, and the bombing did not remotely inflict anywhere close to 500,000 fatalities. (Most casualty estimates are a fraction of that, and many of the dead were Vietnamese troops, not Cambodian civilians.) It is hard to see why the U.S. did anything wrong: If a country allows its soil to be used for military forays into a neighboring country, that neighboring country and its allies have every right to strike back.


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