THE “SECRET BOMBING” of Cambodia ordered by President Richard Nixon left scars in the Cambodian countryside, scars that have lasted through coups, genocide, famine and civil war.
In the United States, the scars are not on the land but in the mind. In both parties, those leaders who haven’t lost sight of Cambodia entirely still tend to see the country through the lens of America’s lost war in Vietnam.
Diehard anti-communists among the Republicans still seem to want to win Cambodia back. Hun Sen, they say, is a dictator, a killer, a war criminal.[n] Hun Sen was installed by communists—and by Vietnamese communists at that. He is a living symbol of America’s greatest Cold War humiliation.
Democrats, meanwhile, tend to favor letting the region sort out its own problems, offering reparations in the form of democracy-building programs. For them, Hun Sen is a homegrown leader who represents the victims of misguided, even criminal, American policies in Cambodia dating back to Nixon’s bombing campaign. Led by Senator John Kerry, they yearn to expiate our national sins by overlooking those of Hun Sen.[n]
Another year passed with no word from the FBI or the Justice Department. Frustrated, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee sent a delegation to Cambodia to review the entire affair. James Doran, the head of the delegation, concluded that members of Hun Sen’s bodyguard force participated in the planning and execution of the attack, and that either the FBI was incompetent or there was a cover-up.[s]
“Possessing such overwhelming evidence that Hun Sen and his bodyguard force were behind this attack,” Doran wrote, “a legitimate course of action would have been to recall our Ambassador and downgrade relations with Phnom Penh until Hun Sen left or was removed from the scene.”[n]
Since September 11, 2001, the United States has led the international community through two wars and into two more rebuilding projects: in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. If the Cambodian model is followed—and it is a comparison that is frequently made—new leaders will have only to be less appalling than those they replace. Many millions of dollars, and many thousands of lives will be spent, and reputations will be on the line. The standards of democracy will prove conveniently flexible. The rule of law will not be put to the test by excessively strict application.
Those who claim to implant democracy from above may once again find themselves held hostage by those who have the power to put the lie to their claims.