The Cambodian endgame has entered a new and critical stage. The regime installed in Phnom Penh by Vietnam eleven years ago-the People's Republic of Kampuchea-continues to hold sway over the major cities and most of the countryside. But with the withdrawal of Vietnamese combat forces in September 1989, its capacity to counter the Khmer Rouge remains in serious doubt, and it is entirely possible that Pol Pot could battle his way back to power in Phnom Penh.1

Continued fighting in Cambodia serves the interests of the Khmer Rouge. Sustained by a mixture of intimidation and indoctrination, as well as Chinese support and Thai sanctuary, the Khmer Rouge is once again a fanatical and formidable force. It has given up neither its goal of regaining power by whatever means necessary nor its xenophobic brand of communism. The best way to prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power is to shift the conflict from the battlefield to the ballot box.

Clearly, the best outcome for Cambodia would be a comprehensive political settlement that demilitarized the internal struggle, neutralized Cambodia as an arena for superpower and regional rivalry, and gave the Khmer people an opportunity for free and fair elections. In the last three years there has been a variety of efforts to produce such a settlement. All have failed, however, largely because the formulas put forward have been more unacceptable to the parties concerned than a continuation of the conflict itself.

In the absence of a settlement the most that Cambodia can hope for is to become a kind of Southeast Asian Lebanon, condemned to continuous civil strife and economic deprivation. In a worst-case scenario Cambodia could even witness a resumption of the Killing Fields should Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge return to power.

In response to the diplomatic deadlock and deteriorating military situation, the Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans, has launched a new initiative designed to end the fighting and give the Cambodian people an opportunity to determine their own destiny. The core of the Australian proposal-that the United Nations assume responsibility for the administration of Cambodia during the interim period between the establishment of a ceasefire and the emergence of a new government following an internationally supervised election-has attracted an unprecedented consensus among the great powers. In view of the difficulties the Cambodians have had in reaching agreement among themselves on almost all issues, the fate of Canberra's initiative will probably be a litmus test for the possibility of any agreement at all. Indeed, it does not seem an exaggeration to suggest that the Australian proposal constitutes the last best hope for a peaceful resolution of the Cambodian conflict. No less certain is the danger the Khmer Rouge poses for Cambodians if negotiations fail.

The chances for a comprehensive political settlement in Cambodia are not high. Yet no one knows whether a mutually acceptable agreement is impossible or merely difficult. In view of the consequences of a continuation of the conflict, it would be a serious political and moral mistake to let the fear of failure preclude the possibility of an overall settlement. Indeed, if the international community neglects the nation's bloody past, defenseless Cambodians may be condemned to repeat it.


For the United States, Cambodia is primarily a moral and humanitarian issue. For the countries of Southeast Asia, it is strategically important because of its geographical position as a potential buffer state for both Vietnam and Thailand. Hanoi has traditionally sought to dominate Phnom Penh or at least deny hegemony to Bangkok. Thailand would prefer to keep Cambodia in its sphere of influence or at least out of Vietnam's. Thailand's partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore-have all sought to keep Vietnam out of Cambodia, both to support Thailand's strategic objective and to reaffirm the principles of nonintervention and self-determination.2 Cambodia has also been the object of great-power conflicts. Beijing's primary objective has been to have a client in power in Phnom Penh and, failing that, to support resistance to Vietnamese hegemony in Indochina, while Moscow has supported Hanoi as a counterweight to Beijing.

There is, however, a precedent for isolating Cambodia from regional and superpower conflict. Once Cambodia became independent from the French in 1953, its ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, sought to preserve autonomy through a policy of neutrality. For more than a decade he succeeded in steering a course among Thailand, South Vietnam and the United States on the one hand, and North Vietnam and China on the other. With the coming of the Vietnam War, however, superpower involvement in Southeast Asia intensified and the vise constraining Cambodian independence tightened. The prince had to concede the eastern portion of the country as a logistics base to North Vietnam and turn a blind eye to the massive American bombing campaign that followed.

Compounding the difficulty of Sihanouk's effort to preserve his country's stability and independence was the evolution of the Cambodian Communist Party. The movement was originally led by individuals who traced their ancestry to the anti-French struggle of the Viet Minh. Challenging them was a group of nationalistic intellectuals who regarded Hanoi's guidance of their party as a type of colonialism. The latter group, led by Pol Pot (né Saloth Sar), gained preeminence in 1960. Five years later, when Vietnam and China urged the Cambodian Communist Party to cease its challenge to Sihanouk's regime-as the expedient price of Sihanouk's tolerance of the Vietnamese presence in the eastern part of the country-Pol Pot refused. At the same time, these "Khmers Rouges" supplemented their disdain for the norms of proletarian internationalism with an ultra-radical approach to the revolution within, a metastasis of China's Cultural Revolution. Thus were sown the seeds of auto-genocide.

Beset on all sides, the prince was deposed in 1970 by Lon Nol, whose forces in turn proved unable to stave off the victory of the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Once in power Pol Pot proceeded to depopulate the cities, slaughter the educated, and impose an unrelenting program of forced-draft economic development. When communism did not materialize overnight, the revolution began to devour itself, with some elements of the party escaping to Vietnam. Thousands of cadres were tortured and murdered in Tuol Sleng, a special concentration camp in Phnom Penh for party members. Close to 30 percent of the population died as a result of Khmer Rouge misrule.

In Southeast Asia, nationalism triumphed over ideology after 1975. The Khmer Rouge xenophobia for the Vietnamese and China's rivalry with Vietnam shattered the facade of Asian communist unity. The split deepened between China (which backed the Khmer Rouge) and the Soviet Union (which increasingly favored Vietnam). In late 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to end the latter's challenges to its territorial integrity.3 Hanoi quickly took over most of the country and installed the remnants of the pro-Vietnamese wing of the Cambodian communist movement as the People's Republic of Kampuchea.

Vietnam's victory produced a strategic nightmare for both China and Thailand. Beijing faced powerful "barbarians" to both the north and the south, which it renamed "global and regional hegemonists." Bangkok saw its traditional buffer occupied by its historic adversary. Thailand and China then conspired to redress the balance of power by an act of complete moral cynicism-the resurrection of the nearly devastated Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot's forces became the lever for removing Vietnam from Cambodia, or at least a rein to render it incapable of aggression elsewhere.

The United States and the rest of ASEAN went along, sometimes reluctantly, with this strategy. In order to put the best light on it and to provide a counterweight to the Khmer Rouge, two small political groupings-the Khmer People's National Liberation Front and the National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia, led respectively by former Prime Minister Son Sann and Prince Sihanouk-were joined with the Khmer Rouge in 1982 to form a Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea. The CGDK was imposed on Sihanouk and Son Sann to prevent the United Nations from substituting the PRK for the Khmer Rouge as the occupant of Cambodia's seat in the United Nations or from declaring the seat vacant. From a Leninist perspective this coalition was a classic united front, in which communists used "royalists" and "bourgeois nationalists" to promote their interests.4

In time Cambodia became Vietnam's Vietnam, an obstacle to Vietnam's economic development and a drain on Soviet-supplied resources. As Moscow's interest in regional conflicts waned under Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership, Hanoi resorted to its own version of "Vietnamization." It made commitments-which few believed at the time-to withdraw its forces by 1990, and worked to build up the PRK regime-now led by Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge regimental commander-as an economic, political and military bulwark strong enough to withstand a challenge by the Khmer Rouge. At the same time, Vietnam sought a political settlement in which its adversaries would accept the legitimacy of the PRK. Not until the summer of 1988, however, did the international community take seriously the possibility that Vietnamese forces would indeed withdraw from Cambodia and leave the world to face the problem that remained: an armed and revitalized Khmer Rouge.


The tortuous process of finding a negotiated settlement to the Cambodian problem has been long and complex, usually conducted under a glare of publicity, marked first by signs of progress but then followed by bitter reversals. A number of different approaches have been tried, but all the formulas required the verified end of foreign engagement in the military struggle in Cambodia: the total withdrawal of Vietnamese troops, the end of Thai sanctuaries for the Khmer Rouge and the noncommunist resistance (NCR), and the end of external support for the Khmer factions. All envisage some type of election as a necessary act of self-determination by the Cambodian people.

The core disagreement concerns the political arrangement that will exist in Cambodia from the time a settlement is concluded until the emergence of a new, electorally legitimate government. On this question, there have been two basic approaches. The first advocates the creation of a quadripartite interim government in which all four factions, including the Khmer Rouge, share power. The second plan argues for the preservation of the current PRK regime, supplemented by mechanisms that provide some role for all four factions. Neither of these approaches has been acceptable to all the parties concerned.

The quadripartite formula was the proposal of Prince Sihanouk in his capacity as president of the CGDK. It is supported by his coalition partners (Son Sann and the Khmer Rouge), by China and the ASEAN countries, and was generally endorsed by the United States. As originally tabled at the Paris conference in August 1989, it envisaged the simultaneous dissolution of the CGDK and the PRK as legal entities, and the sharing of ministerial power on a four-party basis. The Sihanouk proposal included, under U.N. aegis, an international peacekeeping force and international supervision of elections. The four military forces would be either disbanded or reduced to 10,000 fighters each, pending the creation of new Cambodian armed forces.

The basic PRK proposal, which was also presented at the Paris conference by Prime Minister Hun Sen, called for a ceasefire in place and a continuation of the political status quo-the PRK regime-until general elections. A supreme steering council would be established, composed of representatives of the PRK, the CGDK and a number of unaffiliated Khmers. The supreme steering council, under international supervision, would create an electoral system and conduct elections. An international control mechanism would verify the end of external assistance, but there would be no provision for peacekeeping forces. Nor would this control commission be under U.N. aegis since, in Phnom Penh's view, the United Nations had shown itself to be biased by passing resolutions hostile to the PRK and by continuing to seat the CGDK. In the hard-line version of the PRK proposal, the Khmer Rouge military and political organizations would be abolished and their leaders punished. In other versions, Khmer Rouge fighters who laid down their arms would be reincorporated into the political life of the country.

Each of these proposals has been consistently rejected. The CGDK has opposed the standard PRK proposal because it would legitimize a regime imposed on the Cambodian people by force of Vietnamese arms. Moreover, the CGDK argues, the PRK's control of the administrative apparatus would virtually guarantee a victory by Hun Sen in any election, thereby depriving the Cambodian people of the opportunity to freely and fairly determine their own destiny and denying the other factions any chance of gaining power.

On the other hand, the PRK has rejected the CGDK proposal, claiming that its effect would be to legitimize the Khmer Rouge and delegitimize the PRK, whose ideological raison d'être has been unyielding opposition to "the Pol Pot clique." Moreover, the PRK believes that a quadripartite approach would give the Khmer Rouge a better opportunity to come to power than it would have in the absence of a political settlement. Hun Sen has expressed the fear that his party, as only one element of a coalition government, would be outvoted by the other three factions. The Khmer Rouge would therefore be able to subvert the government from within while attacking it from without.

Advocates of a quadripartite approach answer Hun Sen's objections by asserting that the Khmer Rouge does not wish to regain exclusive power in Phnom Penh. As evidence they point to the five pledges of Khmer Rouge representatives at the Paris conference:

-support for Sihanouk's leadership;

-support for disarmament of all the factions;

-support for a strong international peacekeeping force under U.N. auspices;

-conditional support for internationally supervised elections and the promise to abide by the outcome;

-willingness not to insist on equal power-sharing in the quadripartite interim authority.

Some argue that the Khmer Rouge pledges should be put to the test. Pinning one's faith in the quadripartite proposal on such promises is a dangerous and perhaps deadly gamble on the goodwill of a movement for which truth-let alone decency-has been a totally alien concept. Moreover, the U.S. government and most independent observers believe that the objective of the Khmer Rouge is to regain its monopoly of power by whatever means necessary. The continued harsh treatment of civilians in refugee camps by the Khmer Rouge belies any claims of a more humane approach. The claim by the Khmer Rouge that Pol Pot has "retired" when, in fact, he continues to dominate and direct the Khmer Rouge is persuasive evidence of its continued passion for prevarication. Finally, its characterization of the auto-genocide as a "mistake" indicates that all it has learned from the past is the need to employ euphemisms to divert international attention from its barbarous record.


Inhibiting the search for a negotiated settlement has been a reluctance on the part of the parties concerned to summon the political will to make the necessary concessions. Hun Sen and his colleagues clearly believe that their survival depends upon isolating the Khmer Rouge as a military and political force. As former Khmer Rouge officials who know first-hand the duplicity and treachery to which Pol Pot will resort to achieve his goals, the PRK leaders wish to minimize the size of the arena in which the Khmer Rouge will be able to operate. They also know the political benefits that will flow to them if they can keep world attention focused on the horrors of Pol Pot's rule and the need to prevent its resurrection in the future.

Hun Sen has therefore insisted on the preservation of the PRK regime. He has been willing to include Sihanouk in a purely symbolic role-reigning but not ruling-because that would legitimate the PRK regime without forcing it to relinquish any power. But he is prepared to go his own way if the prince continues to reject cooperation.

Hun Sen's confidence was buoyed for a while by apparent cracks in the policy consensus in Thailand. Since late 1988, Prime Minister Chatchai Choonhavan has taken a much softer line on Cambodia than his predecessor and the Thai foreign ministry and army. Chatchai appeared willing to recognize the "reality" of the PRK regime once Vietnam withdrew, and favored turning the Indochina battlefield into a marketplace dominated by Bangkok. He toyed with the ideas of denying sanctuary on Thai soil to the three wings of the resistance and of choking off the supply of Chinese military assistance to them-actions that the PRK and Vietnam believe would cause the Khmer Rouge and the NCR to wither on the vine and guarantee Phnom Penh's ability to contain them. Chatchai's initiative took its most visible form in January 1989 when Hun Sen visited Bangkok at the prime minister's invitation. He has subsequently backed away from his proposals because he was unwilling to accept a break with China, which took a dim view of his move toward Hun Sen. Yet as long as the PRK believes that the Chatchai card might be played, and the Khmer Rouge rendered impotent as a result, its incentive for compromise tends to remain low.

Sihanouk's political constraint stems from his dependence on China. Always aware of Chinese influence, the prince in the last decade has had also to rely on Beijing for diplomatic and financial support and for material assistance to the NCR. In exchange for Chinese aid, Sihanouk has given China a veto, in effect, over his negotiating proposals. Although he knows the dangers posed by the Khmer Rouge-many members of the royal family met their end in the Killing Fields-Sihanouk has vigorously advocated a quadripartite interim government. In public defense of that proposal he asserts that it would be easier to "keep an eye on" and control the Khmer Rouge if it were included in an interim regime than if it remained in the jungle. In his franker moments, he admits that his hands are tied with a Chinese knot.

For this reason Sihanouk has been reluctant to consider what would be a morally more acceptable alignment: a tripartite coalition arrangement in which he and Son Sann would join with the PRK against the Khmer Rouge. By joining Hun Sen, Sihanouk would burn his bridges to China without any advance guarantee of a new patron in order to provide the role of front man for the pro-Vietnam wing of the Cambodian communist movement, just as he has in the past given respectability to the Khmer Rouge. In any event, it appears that although Hun Sen has offered Sihanouk the position of chief of state in his regime and posts for some of his followers, he has not proposed a genuine power-sharing arrangement.5

In November, in the wake of the failure of the Cambodian factions to resolve their differences at the Paris conference, Australian Foreign Minister Evans proposed establishing a U.N.-supervised interim administration as a way of removing the key obstacle to a political settlement and bringing the conflict to an end. His proposal emphasizes the following elements of a comprehensive settlement:

-a U.N. peacekeeping force that would be responsible for implementing a ceasefire in cantonments, disarming the forces, destroying military stockpiles and monitoring the ceasefire;

-internationally supervised elections to select a constituent assembly;

-an internationally supervised end to external sanctuaries and external assistance for military purposes to all parties;

-a massive international program of relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction in Cambodia;

-permitting civilians in all camps associated with the resistance factions to have freedom of movement to return to their place of origin or to accompany their faction back into Cambodia.

In order to break the logjam on interim political arrangements, the Evans initiative would have the United Nations play a significant role in governing Cambodia between the time an agreement is reached and the emergence of a new Cambodian government. An enhanced U.N. role that would supervise an interim Cambodian administration creatively circumvents Hun Sen's objection to the inclusion of the Khmer Rouge in a coalition government and the CGDK's objection to recognizing the PRK regime as the basis for a settlement.

The U.N. secretary general, with the agreement of all parties concerned, would appoint a special representative to serve as head of an interim authority. He and the international civil servants he brings with him would supervise the existing bureaucracy, although the depth of U.N. involvement is still a matter for negotiations. The four factions would continue to exist at least as political parties (but not as coalition partners in an interim government). Whether the PRK and the CGDK would cease to exist as legal entities is as yet unresolved.6

The initial positive responses from most of the parties, including Vietnam and the PRK, were somewhat encouraging. The main point of contention is how the concept will be fleshed out. China still prefers the quadripartite interim proposal, but if that approach is not acceptable it is prepared to support "in principle" a supervisory role for the United Nations. Only the Khmer Rouge has displayed some public resistance.

More disquieting have been the results of initial soundings concerning the U.N. role in administering Cambodia during the interim period. Understandably, Hun Sen has asked for a minimum of U.N. interference in the running of the country. The Chinese, on the other hand, have argued for a root-and-branch removal of PRK officials. In effect, the disagreement over power-sharing that derailed the 1989 Paris conference has been transposed into the U.N. frame of reference. Yet because the concept of U.N. supervision of the interim administration is designed to circumvent the stalemate over power-sharing, negotiations will run aground unless the four factions and their partners can reach a compromise on this central issue.

The U.N.-based settlement should have a better chance of being accepted than previously rejected proposals because it would give something to everyone and requires capitulation by no one. For the NCR, such an agreement would put an end to the fighting in Cambodia, provide for the presence of an international peacekeeping force and avoid a legitimation of the PRK. It would also give them the opportunity through free and fair elections to shape Cambodia's political future, and thus reduce the political advantage that Hun Sen might otherwise gain from control of the administrative apparatus.

A U.N. agreement on Cambodia would also enable China and the ASEAN countries to verify the Vietnamese withdrawal and deny Hanoi the victory of international acceptance for the PRK regime. China would then be able to tell the Khmer Rouge that it is on a par with the other parties. Furthermore, by facilitating a settlement, Beijing could reduce some of the international notoriety it earned in the Tienanmen massacre.

Although the Khmer Rouge would gain the dissolution of the PRK regime, it is less inclined to go along with a U.N. formula than the other factions because its prospects for seizing power would clearly diminish. Yet Beijing is the key: if China supports the formula, the Khmer Rouge would probably be compelled to go along, given its dependence on China. The prospects for a settlement therefore depend, among other things, on China's willingness and ability to deliver the Khmer Rouge.7

For the PRK, it would secure an end to the fighting, a cessation of Chinese support for Pol Pot, the exclusion of the Khmer Rouge from the interim administration, an opportunity to do well in the elections, increased foreign assistance, enhanced international legitimacy, and perhaps a share of the Cambodian seat at the United Nations.

For Vietnam, a U.N. agreement would provide the opportunity for Hanoi's leaders to end their international isolation and provide their protégé, Hun Sen, with the possibility of a significant political role in the new government. An accord would also reduce the chances that Vietnamese troops would have to return to Cambodia to prevent a Khmer Rouge victory.

An agreement would allow the Soviet Union to end its involvement in another regional conflict-certainly more cleanly than was the case in Afghanistan-and gain the benefit of a further reduction in East-West tension. Moreover, a U.N. solution would be consistent with the growing emphasis in Soviet foreign policy on using the United Nations as the mechanism for resolving regional disputes. The United States would also achieve its policy objectives-an act of self-determination for the Cambodian people and some certainty that the Khmer Rouge will not return to power.

Whether the United Nations should shoulder the burden that Foreign Minister Evans has suggested, and whether the governments and taxpayers of wealthy countries are willing to pay the price, reflects the more basic problem of political will. Without a willingness on behalf of all parties to the Cambodian conflict to take risks for the sake of the Khmer people, no settlement will ever be possible. It is the task of diplomacy to determine whether a compromise can be reached, and given the consequences should negotiations fail, it is important to make the effort.

Will the Cambodian factions accept a U.N.-supervised interim administration? If China supports the Evans formula, or does not actively oppose it, Sihanouk will probably jump at the chance to appear more independent.8 More problematic are the motives of the two communist factions. If neither is truly willing, despite its public statements, to run the risk of a contest for power through internationally supervised elections, then there will never be a political settlement. If Hun Sen in fact is able to contain his adversaries close to the Thai-Cambodian border, then he will probably expect the international community to confer legitimacy on him. If the Khmer Rouge believes that, even without Chinese support, it can seize power through armed struggle at an acceptable cost, it will probably not be willing to subject itself to the popular will.

Between these two scenarios, however, may exist a zone of opportunity in which the risks of a continuing struggle outweigh those of a political settlement that seeks to demilitarize the conflict, particularly if external backers choose to cut their losses. In that zone of opportunity lies the proposal for a U.N.-supervised interim administration. Hun Sen and Pol Pot should be put to the test.


During the ten years that Vietnam occupied Cambodia, the United States, haunted by its Indochina nightmare, tended to follow the lead of China and the ASEAN countries. Washington took a back seat in defining the shape of a political settlement, and was reluctant to provide assistance for the noncommunist resistance. When the United States decided to provide aid, it was only of a non-lethal character and was given on the condition that it not enhance, directly or indirectly, the fighting capacity of the Khmer Rouge. There have been U.S. proposals to provide lethal aid for the forces of Sihanouk and Son Sann, but the requisite political consensus has been lacking and no such aid has been provided.9

Although Washington had no role in developing Sihanouk's quadripartite formula, the United States became associated with it. At the same time, the Bush administration was unable to dispel the serious concerns that such an agreement would provide Pol Pot with his best chance of returning to power, and that Sihanouk appeared to be acting less and less as a symbol of Cambodian nationalism and more and more like a front man for China and the Khmer Rouge. Whether these concerns were well founded or not, their existence made it difficult to build a broad and sustainable consensus for U.S. policy.

The current U.S. objectives in Cambodia are to secure a verified withdrawal of Vietnamese forces, bring an end to the fighting, prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power, and encourage Cambodian self-determination. In pursuit of those goals and in the wake of the positive response to Foreign Minister Evans' initiative regarding interim political arrangements, the United States has undertaken to build consensus among the permanent members of the Security Council on all the elements of a U.N.-based comprehensive settlement. The first stage of this process occurred in mid-January 1990 in Paris, when officials at the level of assistant secretary exchanged views on a peacekeeping force, elections, costs and so on. The result was a "summary of conclusions" that expressed agreement on "an enhanced U.N. role in the resolution of the Cambodian problem," and consensus on most of the elements of a settlement.

On the critical point of a U.N.-supervised interim administration not even a vague public agreement was achieved, but that is not surprising given the preliminary stage of the discussions. Presumably, U.S. officials will attempt to forge consensus around some variant of the Evans initiative, in part because they know that it is probably the only idea left for cutting the Gordian knot of power-sharing.

In addition to playing the important role of building a great-power agreement, Washington should also undertake several bilateral initiatives. It should urge Moscow to cease military aid to the Hun Sen regime, and encourage Bangkok to inhibit Khmer Rouge activities and secure greater freedom for the civilians under Khmer Rouge control. To make the proposal as attractive as possible to Vietnam, the United States should be prepared to offer full normalization of relations, including the establishment of a diplomatic mission in Hanoi, and the elimination of the embargo on trade and investment. Given Vietnam's economic crisis and Hanoi's desire to break out of its isolation, a U.S. offer to open a new chapter in the relations between the two countries should be a powerful incentive for Vietnam to cooperate in the search for a Cambodian settlement.10

Because China has been the sole supporter of the Khmer Rouge, and because the Khmer Rouge will probably not agree to a reasonable settlement without Chinese pressure, Washington should:

-inform Beijing of the importance it attaches to China's role in this issue;

-explicitly reject the quadripartite formula, which the United States previously had quietly endorsed and which China continues to support, in order to make clear to Beijing that there can be no fallback from the U.N. formula;

-call on Beijing to immediately end its support for the Khmer Rouge;

-promise an improvement in U.S.-China relations if Beijing gets the Khmer Rouge to agree to a settlement.

Securing genuine Chinese endorsement of a U.N.-based settlement for Cambodia would be one way for the administration to prove that the dispatch to China of National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger in July and December 1989 was justified.

The Chinese have indicated that they do not want the Khmer Rouge to return to exclusive power, and that if Pol Pot rejected a reasonable settlement, China would end its assistance to the Khmer Rouge. If Khmer Rouge intransigence results in a breakdown of negotiations, therefore, it will still result in a cutting of the Chinese lifeline, the probable emergence of a coalition of Cambodian factions opposed to Pol Pot, and the end of Thai sanctuary for the Khmer Rouge, thus greatly reducing the threat it poses. At best, the U.N. approach will produce a negotiated settlement that puts the Khmer Rouge in a political box. At a minimum, it could serve to place the Khmer Rouge in isolation-which is precisely where it belongs.

Others have argued that because a settlement is highly unlikely, the United States should recognize the PRK regime as the strongest bulwark against the Khmer Rouge and even provide it with assistance. If a political settlement on any terms is impossible, the international community may confront a choice between supporting the PRK or watching the Khmer Rouge return to power. Indeed, if the Evans-U.N. formula fails, Western governments such as Britain and France may well be forced to yield to the pressure of anti-Khmer Rouge public opinion and begin opening embassies in Phnom Penh. They will surely be unwilling to continue voting at the United Nations to give the Cambodian seat to the Khmer Rouge and its noncommunist partners in the CGDK.

Choosing between the PRK and the Khmer Rouge would present the United States with a Hobson's choice. Support for the Khmer Rouge would be, of course, utterly unthinkable. Yet backing Hun Sen is hardly an enticing proposition. In the first place, the PRK may prove to be quite weak, even with U.S. support, when confronted by the full force of the Khmer Rouge. If the United States were to provide support to the PRK regime-whether political or military as well-it would probably not make much difference in stopping the Khmer Rouge.11

In any case, building political support for U.S. recognition of the PRK, even on anti-Khmer Rouge grounds, would not be easy. Hun Sen's party remains a Leninist party both organizationally and ideologically. The PRK's leaders are tainted, moreover, by a sordid past. Most of the members of the PRK politburo are former Khmer Rouge who were part of the killing machine established by Pol Pot. They defected to Vietnam not for reasons of principle but because they were about to be devoured themselves. Having ridden into Phnom Penh on Vietnamese tanks, they then engaged in human rights abuses that, according to Amnesty International, included the execution, incarceration and torture of thousands.

It is doubtful, therefore, that either the Bush administration or Congress would be willing to materially support the Hun Sen regime-even though, should the Australian initiative fail, U.S. support for the PRK would clearly be the lesser of two evils.

The only way to avoid the difficult choice between the Khmer Rouge and PRK and the best way to achieve U.S. objectives-the most important of which is to prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power-is to secure a sound political settlement in Cambodia. If Washington were to recognize the regime in Phnom Penh before the search for a political settlement was exhausted, Hun Sen would inevitably conclude that time was on his side and he would undoubtedly be less willing to make the kind of concessions necessary for an agreement. Furthermore, siding now with the PRK, thereby greatly reducing the prospects for a comprehensive settlement, would rule out the other major objectives of American policy-true independence for Cambodia and self-determination of the Cambodian people.

Prior to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, no country lifted a finger to stop the slaughter by the Khmer Rouge of innocent people. While a powerful moral argument might be made for an international police action to prevent a Khmer Rouge return to power again, the prospects for such an initiative in 1990 are as slim as they were in 1975. Regrettably, there are limits to what people of goodwill can do to stop inhumanity and injustice.

Yet the impossibility of stopping some abuses in the past is no justification for doing nothing when new disasters loom in the future. If the international community truly believes that humane treatment of the defenseless is a norm that should be applied wherever possible, it must act now and to the utter limits of its capacity to block a new round of genocide in Cambodia. Even if chronic civil war is the ultimate outcome in that country, it is not an acceptable one as long as a satisfactory political settlement remains possible. Cambodians have suffered too long because of the moral cynicism of others. We degrade our own values if we unnecessarily permit them to suffer any longer.

1 In late February, news reports indicated that Vietnam sent elite combat units back into Cambodia at the end of October 1989. This both restores the Vietnamese presence to the agenda of issues to be addressed in a political settlement and indicates the fragility of the PRK hold on the country.

2 This pattern began in the fifteenth century, with the Vietnamese and Thai courts trying to control Cambodia or at least bar the other's influence. The most common scenario before the arrival of French colonialism was for factions in the Khmer court to seek the aid of Hanoi or Bangkok, each of which was all too willing to use the conflict to wrest control of zones of Cambodian territory and otherwise protect their interests.

3 In a conversation in 1981, Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach told me that Vietnam's motivation for intervening was not to protect the human rights of the Cambodian people, which Hanoi regarded as Cambodia's internal affair, but to bring an end to a series of destructive cross-border raids by the Khmer Rouge. He said nothing about Vietnam's historical ambition to establish an Indochinese federation under its control, which presumably was one of Hanoi's motives as well.

4 This was not the first time that Prince Sihanouk entered into an alliance with the Khmer Rouge. After his fall in 1970, he lent support to Pol Pot's cause. Khmer Rouge cadres carried his picture as a kind of revolutionary icon. Far more than the American bombing, the willingness of Prince Sihanouk to let the Khmer Rouge recruit and mobilize in his name was a key factor in its ultimate triumph. It was a mistake of disastrous proportions for which the prince has never forgiven himself.

5 Sihanouk's objections aside, a tripartite arrangement has other problems. It would neither stop the fighting nor guarantee an end to Chinese assistance. Furthermore, any type of international presence under United Nations auspices would be impossible, since the United Nations only enters situations where all parties agree, and China would certainly veto a U.N. role under such an agreement.

6 Cambodia's seat at the United Nations, now under the exclusive control of the CGDK, would either be declared vacant or filled in a way acceptable to each of the factions, thereby giving Hun Sen, who has criticized the United Nations for being biased in the past, some assurance that it would be more objective in the future.

7 Some have objected to the Australian initiative because it would give the Khmer Rouge the right to participate in elections. Yet if there is to be a settlement that ends the fighting and permits an act of self-determination by the Cambodian people, the Khmer Rouge leaders will have to be included as participants, albeit in a way that reduces the risks that they could undermine the settlement. If they cannot even participate in the elections-which they are sure to lose-they and their Chinese patrons will never agree to a settlement in the first place and the fighting will continue.

8 Prince Sihanouk's latest resignation, in January 1990, appears designed to distance himself from the Khmer Rouge now that a political settlement seems to be in the cards. Realistically speaking, however, he will probably preserve the possibility of a return to the Chinese-Khmer Rouge fold in case the U.N. formula does not result in a settlement, particularly if Beijing is the only certain source of weapons for his troops.

9 Although it is conceivable that minimal amounts of assistance intended for the NCR have ended up in Khmer Rouge hands, such "leakage" is insignificant, since the total amount of aid reaching the NCR is a fraction of what the Khmer Rouge receives from China.

10 It would be a mistake to establish diplomatic relations and lift the embargo before the outcome of this round of negotiations is clear. If we were to do so, it would significantly diminish Hanoi's incentive to exercise leverage on Hun Sen in order to facilitate a settlement. Once a settlement is achieved, we should move swiftly to normalize relations between the United States and Vietnam.

11 The failure of the Lon Nol regime to defeat the Khmer Rouge after receiving over $1 billion in U.S. military aid from 1970 to 1975 suggests that American backing alone hardly constitutes an adequate basis for preventing the return of the Khmer Rouge. Then, as now, Pol Pot's opponents did not lack for military equipment. Now, as then, the deficiency lies in the areas of leadership, morale, training and so on.

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  • Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) has served in Congress since 1975, and has been Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs since 1981. He has visited Cambodia three times, most recently in March 1989.
  • More By Stephen J. Solarz