A Tragedy of No Importance, by Rich Garella and Eric Pape
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BENEATH THE JOVIAL COUNTENANCE of Kenneth M. Quinn, U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, lay both a heartfelt commitment to peace in Cambodia and an intense disdain for the Khmer Rouge.


As a graduate student at the University of Maryland, Quinn wrote his dissertation on the origins of radical Cambodian communism, and he was one of the first State Department officials to recognize just how sinister the Khmer Rouge were.[s] Later he served as a deputy assistant secretary of state. Quinn arrived in mid-1995 determined to persuade Hun Sen—who sometimes implicitly threatened Americans in the country[n]—that Washington was no longer his enemy.

But by the second year of his tenure as ambassador, Quinn suggested that he was tortured by doubts about the course he was taking, something he expressed in private conversations with foreign journalists and human rights workers. During the course of a rambling discussion in his embassy meeting room, he appeared to agonize, saying, “It’s so hard to know when you are doing good here.”

One night in the early spring of 1997, Ambassador Quinn was sitting on his sister-in-law’s sofa in McLean, Virginia, watching Saturday Night Live, when his deputy called him from Phnom Penh with news of the attack. Quinn told us he took a tough line. “I dictated a statement,” he recalls. “I said take this and get it out and deplore the attack. Condemn it.”

The ambassador, however, was better known for his backyard barbecues than for his willingness to confront Hun Sen, with whom he felt he had a special rapport.[s] They had worked together when Quinn helped negotiate the United Nations peace plan for Cambodia,[n] and they had a common enemy, the Khmer Rouge.[n] Quinn could work with Hun Sen—in fact, he had to work with Hun Sen because Hun Sen was, realistically, the only player with the power to reward Quinn with any signs of success.[n]

But Hun Sen could also deliver failure, and he played by rougher rules than Quinn. To convey to us how badly the American ambassador misread power relations in the country, an influential Cambodian official recounted watching Quinn offer a group of Cambodian law students a lesson. “When I ask for something I say please,” Quinn told the students, “and when I receive something I say thank you.”

The Cambodian official scoffed. “I don’t say please. I don’t say thank you. I have an envelope stuffed with cash to give and I don’t care about the rest,” he told us. “I think Quinn missed the whole point in this country. If Hun Sen heard Quinn say that, he would be laughing all night.”[s]

Quinn’s “tough” statement was carefully diplomatic. “We extend our sympathies,” it read. “Attacks like this can cause great harm to efforts to promote democracy and advance human rights in Cambodia. It is imperative that all in Cambodia do everything possible to avoid any future violence which could put at risk the significant progress Cambodia has made in recent years.”[s]

Seriously injuring a U.S. citizen in a terrorist attack abroad is a federal crime punishable by up to ten years in prison.[n] So long as the U.S. ambassador agrees to it and the foreign country pledges cooperation,[s] the FBI is duty-bound to investigate and present its findings to the Department of Justice. In this case, neither Ken Quinn[n] nor Hun Sen could oppose an investigation; a lot of foreign aid was at stake.

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A Tragedy of No Importance, by Rich Garella and Eric Pape
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