Returning to Cambodia

August 23, 2007

For a long time, when it talked about Iraq, the Bush administration avoided Vietnam references like the plague. This was perhaps a reasonable judgment that, even if useful debating points could be made, any mention of the “V-word” would be a psychological and political disaster.

The administration has now dropped the taboo, as we see in the president’s speech Wednesday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. One reason may be that in today’s Iraq debate, the analogies that work in its favor are too strong to pass up. I agree with that. The analogies relate to the situation on the ground and the likely consequences of congressional action.

Military historians seem to be converging on a consensus that by the end of 1972, the balance of forces in Vietnam had improved considerably, increasing the prospects for South Vietnam’s survival. That balance of forces was reflected in the Paris Agreement of January 1973, and the (Democratic) Congress then proceeded to pull the props out from under that balance of forces over the next 2 ½ years — abandoning all of Indochina to a bloodbath. This is now a widely accepted narrative of the endgame in Vietnam, and it has haunted the Democrats for a generation.

Will tomorrow’s narrative be that the strategic situation in Iraq was starting to improve in 2007 but the Congress tied the president’s hands anyway — tipping events toward an American defeat, dooming Iraq to chaos, emboldening Islamist extremists throughout the Middle East, and demoralizing all our friends in the region who are on the front line against this scourge? How can the president refrain from making this point? Why on earth should he?

The president is absolutely right to include the Khmer Rouge genocide in his recitation of the Vietnam endgame. When Congress, in the summer of 1973, legislated an end to U.S. military action in, over, or off the shores of Indochina, the only U.S. military activity then going on was air support of a friendly Cambodian government and army desperately defending their country against a North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge onslaught. “Cambodia is not worth the life of one American flier,” Tip O’Neill declared. By 1975, administration pleas to help Cambodia were answered by New York Times articles suggesting the Khmer Rouge would probably be moderate once they came into power and the Cambodian people had a better life to look forward to once we left.

Trying to debunk the president’s VFW speech, the Times has lately resuscitated the hoary claim that it was U.S. military activity that destabilized Cambodia in the first place. This claim, alas, is not supportable. What destabilized Cambodia was North Vietnam’s occupation of chunks of Cambodian territory from 1965 onwards for use as military bases from which to launch attacks on U.S. and South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam. Cambodia’s ruler Prince Sihanouk complained bitterly to us about these North Vietnamese bases in his country and invited us to attack them (which we did from the air in 1969-70). Next came a North Vietnamese attempt to overrun the entire country in March-April 1970, to which U.S. and South Vietnamese forces responded by a limited ground incursion at the end of April.

So the president has his history right. The outcome in Indochina was not foreordained. Congress had the last word, however, between 1973 and 1975.

The strategic consequences of defeat in Indochina were also serious. Leonid Brezhnev crowed that the global “correlation of forces” had shifted in favor of “socialism,” and the Soviets went on a geopolitical offensive in the third world for a decade. Demoralized allied leaders in Europe as well as Asia feared the new Soviet aggressiveness and lamented the paralysis of American will. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, he and his colleagues invoked Vietnam as evidence that U.S. warnings did not need to be taken seriously. That’s what it means to lose credibility. Once lost, it has to be re-earned the hard way.

No analogies are ever complete, but — given our global leadership and the number of allies and friends that rely on us for their security — the consequences of an American defeat can be counted on to be terrible. How can anyone seriously think otherwise?