Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Duch In The Dock, Pointing Outward

Kaing Guek Eav, a prison commander charged with torturing and killing 17,000 during the genocidal reign of the communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia beginning in 1975, blames his crimes on the Nixon administration. Known as Duch, the defendant says that the Khmer Rouge (who murdered nearly two million Cambodians before being driven from power in 1979) gained strength only after the United States supported the regime of Lon Nol, whose second stint as prime minister began in 1969 and ended with the communist victory. Though it has not yet attracted much media coverage in the U.S., Duch's testimony may well reopen a debate among policy makers and historians akin to a theological discussion about the origin of original sin.

In 1968, the fanatical Khmers launched a guerrilla war in Cambodia with support from China and North Vietnam, whose troops had been using Cambodia's supposedly neutral territory as a safe haven for years. Cambodia's head of state, the mercurial and undependable Norodom Sihanouk, wouldn't take on the communists. In 1970, Lon Nol, with the support of the nation's legislature, deposed him and adopted a strong anti-communist line, which the U.S. naturally affirmed, whereupon Sihanouk went to work lending his considerable prestige in the countryside to building up the Khmer Rouge's already muscular insurgency.

Duch's dubious assertion that the Khmers were in tatters until Richard Nixon stepped in fits in neatly with William Shawcross's contention in 1979's Sideshow that the U.S. secret bombing of North Vietnamese positions inside Cambodia in 1969 (tacitly supported, ironically, by Sihanouk) turned the Khmer Rouge into a going concern. Writing in the "American Spectator," the late Peter Rodman, a former Kissinger aide, engaged in an epic exchange with Shawcross during the early 1980s which, as you may imagine, RN and HAK followed with considerable interest.

The tactical side of arguments such as Shawcross's and Duch's is rooted in the law of unintended consequences. If the D-Day invasion had failed and the Nazis killed all the French people who assisted the Allied forces, then FDR and Eisenhower, according to one way of looking at it, would've been responsible for the slaughter. In that kind of analysis, it's entirely up to the observer to identify the sine qua non. If you pick Nixon, then you're saying that the communists' policies while in power are the result of his having essentially spent his Presidency to keep them out. Is it too easy to say that the fault lies instead with the Khmers themselves, for actually envisioning their horrific acts of internal ethnic and socio-economic cleansing (and, of course, with those in Beijing, Moscow, and Hanoi who helped pay for it)?

No comments: