Commentary Magazine


Topic: Khmer Rouge

Lessons for ISIS from the Khmer Rouge

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge ravaged Cambodia, killing between one and two million people before its murderous regime was ousted by a Vietnamese invasion. While Cambodia is far from Iraq and Syria, there are a number of parallels between the Khmer Rouge and the Islamic State (ISIS) that might inform the policy debate today.

Read More

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge ravaged Cambodia, killing between one and two million people before its murderous regime was ousted by a Vietnamese invasion. While Cambodia is far from Iraq and Syria, there are a number of parallels between the Khmer Rouge and the Islamic State (ISIS) that might inform the policy debate today.

First, both are deeply ideological movements, even if the roots of those ideologies draw upon very different sources. Then, the Khmer Rouge arose from the vacuum that resulted after the precipitous departure of American forces from the region, just as the Islamic State seized advantage from the departure of American troops. Just as some analysts and academics—not without reason—suggest that it was America’s initial military involvement in Iraq which open Pandora’s Box and led to the cascade of events which culminated in the Islamic State’s rise, so too did analysts and academics in the 1970s seek to shift blame from the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities to the United States on the logic that had the United States not involved itself in Vietnam and bombed Cambodia, none of the subsequent history would have occurred.

According to the academic work of Yale Professor Ben Kiernan, the Khmer Rouge was not an equal opportunity offender: Cambodia was a diverse place, and while the Khmer Rouge killed ethnic Khmers and the urban elite, it sought out and targeted Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese with special enthusiasm. In this way, the Khmer Rouge is like ISIS for whom Iraq’s Shi’ites and religious minorities is the true target, even as they slaughter ordinary Sunnis.

Conducting an average of seven airstrikes a day would never have stopped the Khmer Rouge, and at any rate, Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter never tried such a thing. Likewise, training a rag tag group of moderate communists would never have unseated the Khmer Rouge any more than training a rag tag group of moderate Islamists would now. The time to stop the Khmer Rouge was before it arose, but once it sunk its roots into Cambodia’s soil, the only way to end it and its unassuageable appetite for murder was a full-scale invasion.

If the parallel holds, then, the question for policymakers is which country will be the Islamic State’s “Vietnam.” Symbolic bombing will not do the trick, nor will training a militia or even a small deployment of boots on the ground. Certainly, it will not be the United States who occupies Iraq and Syria to drive out the Islamic State. Perhaps Iran or Turkey will one day do the dirty work, although both would simply trade one evil for another. Then again, the Khmer Rouge had four years before someone stepped up to the plate. The question analysts must now consider is that if such a parallel holds, how much more damage can the Islamic State do now to Syrians and Iraqis and the broader region in general, than the Khmer Rouge did in Southeast Asia 35 years ago.

Read Less

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.”

Read More

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.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.