Killing Fields… In Iraq?
As Yogi Berra said, it’s déja vu all over again: a misbegotten American war that destabilized a regional balance of power; an incompetent, authoritarian central government led by an increasingly despotic, irrational ruler; a disciplined, radicalized insurgent force moving inexorably towards the capital and seizing key terrain in the face of army desertions and collapse; and in Washington, a White House scrambling to jury-rig a policy to prevent collapse in the face of a hostile Congress and an indifferent public weary of overseas adventures, offering “assistance” but no troops
As ISIS forces march on Baghdad in the face of a collapsing Iraqi Army, I’ve been put in mind of the first foreign policy crisis I consciously followed as a teenager: the collapse of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Perhaps this is why I’m rather hawkish on U.S. assistance to Iraq today.
Those in the Nixon/Ford Administration who warned a “bloodbath” would follow a Khmer Rouge takeover were dismissed in the media and by Congressional liberals rolled their eyes at what they said was White House hysteria. On August 5, 1975, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts told the Washington Post he was “convinced the bloodbath rhetoric” was simply a ploy the White House used to “delay our withdrawal” from Southeast Asia.
On April 10, 1975, President Gerald Ford called on Congress to provide over $200 million in aid to Cambodia; during his speech, reporters observed Democratic Party members “hissing” and “walking out.” Congressional moderates and conservatives defended inaction on the grounds their constituents had no more stomach for fighting in Southeast Asia. Representative Walter Flowers, a moderate Louisiana Democrat, told the New York Times his constituents “don’t have any feelings of guilt [about what might happen] We should make friends with whoever can govern.” An April 1975 Harris Poll reported that 57% of Americans opposed more military aid to Cambodia even if it “would prevent a bloodbath.”
In April 1975, the government of Khmer Republic President Lon Nol, who deposed Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk in March 1970, was toppled by the Khmer Rouge, who fought a surprisingly effective military campaign during which the Cambodian army turned tail and ran — not unlike the situation in Iraq today.
Like Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Lon Nol made little attempt to govern Cambodia justly during his 5 years in office. Neither Sihanouk nor Nol could cope with the regional, and local, instability precipitated by the Vietnam War; both the North Vietnamese and the United States routinely ignored Cambodia’s neutrality, and President Richard Nixon’s 1970 Cambodia “incursion” exacerbated that instability.
Media reports suggest that ISIS militants are being welcomed as forces of “justice” or law and order in some predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq. The Khmer Rouge were similarly welcomed, even in Phnom Penh; the Washington Post reported on April 17, 1975, that “people stood on the sidewalks waving to the incoming, black-clad insurgents.” It is well to remember, perhaps, that in Afghanistan, too, the Taliban were welcomed as stabilizers and liberators at the end of the 1990s Civil War.
Of course, we know what happened next in Cambodia (and in Afghanistan).
The Khmer Rouge embarked on a genocidal campaign to return “Kampuchea” to its “authentic” roots, purging the country of Western influences and those suspected of being sympathetic to their “enemies;” ISIS similarly plans to “purify” its putative Caliphate and return the Sunni population to “authentic” Islam.
The Khmer Rouge consolidated their power by systematically executing officers and soldiers of the Cambodian Army; Hürriyet, Turkey’s English-language newspaper, reports today that ISIS is executing officers and soldiers of the Iraqi Army.
And shortly thereafter, the Khmer Rouge embarked on what has come to be known as the “Killing Fields” — the bloodbath Washington predicted.