Foreign Policy Blogs

Memo to America: Stay Out of Cambodia


There is an infamous line from a speech made by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson at Johns Hopkins University in 1965 during which he was attempting to rationalize American involvement in Southeast Asia to the skeptical public. “We want nothing for ourselves,” he said “only that the people of South Vietnam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way.”

To understand such an epic lie is to understand history.

I was reminded of that speech this past week when I read that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had called for the suspension of military aid to Cambodia following the recent disputed National Assembly elections which took place at the end of July. This is part of the grand strategy of the neoconservative Republican wing — the so-called moderates these days — in their never ending endeavor of regime change imposed on countries who seek an alternative to United States hegemony. They too claim their only objective is to spread democracy and freedom around the world, even if that goal comes at the expense of countless lives.

The corrupt regime of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen has shown they will play all sides, but they have increasingly become reliant on Chinese aid, which comes with no strings attached to inconveniences likes good governance, transparency, and respect for human rights. Moreover, U.S. military aid represents only a small fraction of the foreign aid Washington sends to Cambodia, so the decision is likely to be received with nonchalance by Phnon Penh.

Today, Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, is traveling throughout the West trying to drum up support for his party and to seek international isolation for Hun Sen. Mr. Rainsy holds some very xenophobic opinions of the Vietnamese who reside in Cambodia. Vietnam is also historical enemies with China, and is currently marred in a row of sorts with Beijing over a group of disputed islands in the South China Sea. What’s even more strange is that this all comes on the heels of a recent nuclear energy agreement between Washington and Hanoi which adds yet another chapter to the Asian Pivot Obama Doctrine.

So Hun Sen has close ties to China. Vietnam is in dispute with China and has now moved closer to the U.S. Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen’s nemesis, dislikes Vietnam but is being supported by a faction of the U.S. government who would like to see a change in political leadership in Cambodia. It all seems like a contradiction. Indeed, when things are this complicated, the best thing the U.S. can do is nothing at all.

If you are not familiar with Senator Graham, then you may have missed all of the not-listening tours he and his best friend Senator John McCain (R-AZ) took during the disastrous war in Iraq. One of their favorite pastimes was arguing that things couldn’t possibly be going so bad because they could still rip-off the impoverished street vendors in Baghdad. The two inseparable buddies like to jet-set to the international hotspots these days, then come back and try to swindle the American public into flushing more of their tax dollars down the Pentagon’s toilet. But it’s not all a joke; there was talk that Graham, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, may have been under consideration for a cabinet position if McCain had won the presidency in 2008. If that scenario had played out, who knows how many countries could have been “bombed, invaded, or destabilized.”

History paints a picture that when regimes are toppled, and foreign-backed puppets sworn in, it generally leads to abuses, violence, and death. There are more than enough examples to use in the Arab world alone today. The Arab Spring, supported by politicians like Senators McCain and Graham, have led to monstrous governments in Libya and Egypt. It would be a similar situation in Syria if Bashar Assad was overthrown. But I know of no better case study to use to prove this assertion than Cambodia.

In 1970, the Cambodian Monarch Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup. Whether the CIA was behind the coup, helped to plan it, or was uninvolved remains a controversy. But given America’s proclivity for intervention, it would be fair to say the United States did nothing to discourage it. In any event,  the pro-U.S. Lon Nol became the self-proclaimed President in the inaugural years of the short-lived Khmer Republic and allowed the United States to pummel his country with bombs. That indiscriminate bombing campaign — meant to hit North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong militants who traversed the border — caused massive destruction of the Cambodian countryside and led to a surge in popularity for the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge, hitherto a small, rag-tag bunch of guerrillas. For many rural Cambodians, there was virtually no other choice. What followed was a genocide which killed between 1-1.5 million people, or roughly one-sixth of Cambodia’s population at the time.

Focusing on United States foreign policy vis–à–vis Cambodia provides an interesting look into the regime change doctrine being endorsed in Washington and the chaos that is wrecked on the unfortunate people of those countries. This is something to be avoided at all costs with respect to the current situation in Cambodia. Consider the implications of American involvement, directly or indirectly, in propping up Mr. Rainsy: his acrimonious rhetoric directed at Vietnam would likely cause tensions between Washington and Hanoi, and may end up benefiting China in the long-run. There would likely be attempts to fix the mistake and it would be easy to see how unintended consequences could rapidly escalate and spiral out-of-control.

The winds of change will come to Cambodia soon, for better or worse. The younger generation, of which I have spent a consdierable amount of time with over the past two years, seems to be ready to embrace the concept. During the campaign season, youthful Khmers drove through the streets of Phnom Penh in motor bike brigades shouting “doh,” the Khmer word for change.

There were myriad irregularities in the summer’s general election, but any sort of political transition must come internally if it’s to come at all. Senator Graham may be right in calling for a suspension in aid, but his actions should stop there. The last thing Cambodians need is the United States forcing an artificial color revolution on them causing the type of death and destruction the world has witnessed in the Mideast. A puppet government would lack legitimacy in the eyes of Cambodians because they are a people well aware of their own history. It is for this very reason why Hun Sen’s reign — supported in large part by Beijing — will likely fizzle out sooner rather than later. If and when that happens, it would be refreshing to know that the people of Cambodia were able to accomplish such a change on their own.




Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.