Pol Pot And Kissinger
On war criminality and impunity
by Edward S. Herman
from the Internet
The hunt is on once again for war criminals, with ongoing
trials of accused Serbs in The Hague, NATO raids seizing and killing
other accused Serbs, and much discussion and enthusiasm in the
media for bringing Pol Pot to trial, which the editors of the
New York Times assure us would be "an extraordinary triumph
for law and civilization" (June 24).
The Politics of War Criminality
There are, however, large numbers of mass murderers floating
around the world. How are the choices made on who will be pursued
and who will be granted impunity? The answer can be found by following
the lines of dominant interest and power and watching how the
mainstream politicians, media, and intellectuals reflect these
demands. Media attention and indignation "follows the flag,"
and the flag follows the money (i.e., the demands of the corporate
community), with some eccentricity based on domestic political
calculations. This sometimes yields droll twists and turns, as
in the case of Saddam Hussein, consistently supported through
the 1980s in his war with Iran and chemical warfare attacks on
Iraqi Kurds, until his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, transformed
him overnight into "another Hitler." Similarly, Pol
Pot, "worse than Hitler" until his ouster by Vietnam
in 1979, then quietly supported for over a decade by the United
States and its western allies (along with China) as an aid in
"bleeding Vietnam," but now no longer serviceable to
western policy and once again a suitable target for a war crimes
Another way of looking at our targeting of war criminals is
by analogy to domestic policy choices on budget cuts and incarceration,
where the pattern is to attack the relatively weak and ignore
and protect those with political and economic muscle. Pol Pot
is now isolated and politically expendable, so an obvious choice
for villainization. By contrast, Indonesian leader Suharto, the
butcher of perhaps a million people (mainly landless peasants)
in 1965-66, and the invader, occupier, and mass murderer of East
Timor from 1975 to today, is courted and protected by the Great
Powers, and was referred to by an official of the Clinton administration
in 1996 as "our kind of guy." Pinochet, the torturer
and killer of many thousands, is treated kindly in the United
States as the Godfather of the wonderful new neoliberal Chile.
President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger, who gave the
go ahead to Suharto's invasion of East Timor and subsequent massive
war crimes there, and the same Kissinger, who helped President
Nixon engineer and then protect the Pinochet coup and regime of
torture and murder and directed the first phase of the holocaust
in Cambodia (1969-75), remain honored citizens. The media have
never suggested that these men should be brought to trial in the
interest of justice, law, and "civilization."
U.S./Western Embrace of Pol Pot
The Times editorial of June 24 recognizes a small problem
in pursuing Pol Pot, arising from the fact that after he was forced
out of Cambodia by Vietnam, "From 1979 to 1991, Washington
indirectly backed the Khmer Rouge, then a component of the guerrilla
coalition fighting the Vietnamese installed Government [in Phnom
Penh]." This does seem awkward: the United States and its
allies giving economic, military, and political support to Pol
Pot, and voting for over a decade to have his government retain
Cambodia's UN seat, but now urging his trial for war crimes. The
Times misstates and understates the case: the United States gave
direct as well as indirect aid to Pol Pot-in one estimate, $85
million in direct support-and it "pressured UN agencies to
supply the Khmer Rouge," which "rapidly improved"
the health and capability of Pol Pot's forces after 1979 (Ben
Kiernan, "Cambodia's Missed Chance," Indochina Newsletter,
Nov.-Dec. 1991). U.S. ally China was a very large arms supplier
to Pol Pot, with no penalty from the U.S. and in fact U.S. connivance-Carter's
National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that in 1979
"I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot...Pol Pot was
an abomination. We could never support him but China could."
In 1988-89 Vietnam withdrew its army from Cambodia, hoping
that this would produce a normalization of relationships. Thailand
and other nations in the region were interested in a settlement,
but none took place for several more years "because of Chinese
and U.S. rejection of any...move to exclude the Khmer Rouge. The
great powers...continued to offer the Khmer Rouge a veto,"
which the Khmer Rouge used, with Chinese aid, "to paralyze
the peace process and...advance their war aims." The Bush
administration threatened to punish Thailand for "its defection
from the aggressive U.S.-Chinese position," and George Shultz
and then James Baker fought strenuously to sabotage any concessions
to Vietnam, the most important of which was exclusion of Pol Pot
from political negotiations and a place in any interim government
of Cambodia. The persistent work of the Reagan-Bush team on behalf
of Pol Pot has been very much downplayed, if not entirely suppressed,
in the mainstream media.
The Times has a solution to the awkwardness of the post-1978
Western support of Pol Pot: "All Security Council members...might
spare themselves embarrassment by restricting the scope of prosecution
to those crimes committed inside Cambodia during the four horrific
years of Khmer Rouge rule." We must give the Times credit
for semi-honesty in admitting that this is to avoid embarrassing
the Great Powers. It is interesting, though, that the Times finds
no real problem in the "dirty hands," and hypocrisy,
so apparent in the lengthy support of war criminals, and that
it offers no reflections on how "law and civilization"
are served if the criminals were protected and supported for more
than a decade by the forces of law and order.
Two Phases of Cambodian "Genocide"
The Times, along with everybody else in the mainstream media,
also fails to mention that before Pol Pot came to power in 1975,
the United States had devastated Cambodia for the first half of
what a Finnish government's study referred to as a "decade"
of genocide (not just the four years of Pol Pot's rule, 1975-78).
The "secret bombing" of Cambodia by the Nixon-Kissinger
gang may have killed as many Cambodians as were executed by the
Khmer Rouge and surely contributed to the ferocity of Khmer Rouge
behavior toward the urban elite and citizenry whose leaders had
allied themselves with the foreign terrorists.
The U.S.-imposed holocaust was a "sideshow" to the
Vietnam War, the United States bombing Cambodia heavily by 1969,
helping organize the overthrow of Sihanouk in 1970, and in collaboration
with its puppet Saigon government making period incursions into
Cambodia in the 1960s and later. "U.S. B-52s pounded Cambodia
for 160 consecutive days [in 1973], dropping more than 240,000
short tons of bombs on rice fields, water buffalo, villages (particularly
along the Mekong River) and on such troop positions as the guerrillas
might maintain," a tonnage that "represents 50 percent
more than the conventional explosives dropped on Japan during
World War II". This "constant indiscriminate bombing"
was of course carried out against a peasant society with no air
force or ground defenses. The Finnish government study estimates
that 600,000 people died in this first phase, with 2 million refugees
produced. Michael Vickerey estimated 500,000 killed in phase one.
At the end of the first half of the decade of genocide, with
the Khmer Rouge victorious and occupying Phnom Penh in April 1975,
Cambodia was a shattered, embittered society, on the verge of
mass starvation with crops unsowed and vast numbers of refugees
in and around Phnom Penh suddenly cut off from the U.S. aid that
had kept them alive. High U.S. officials were estimating a million
deaths from starvation before the Khmer Rouge takeover. The Khmer
Rouge forced a mass exodus from Phnom Penh, whose population they
were in no position to feed, an action interpreted in the West
as simply a completely unjustified exercise in vengeance.
There is no question but that the Khmer Rouge were brutal
and killed large numbers. Michael Vickerey estimated 150-300,000
executed and an excess of deaths in the four years of Pol Pot
rule of 750,000. David Chandler estimates up to 100,000 executions
(Newsweek, June 30, 1997). The Finnish study estimated the total
deaths in the Pol Pot years at a million, encompassing both executions
and deaths from disease, starvation and overwork. Other serious
studies of Cambodia yield comparable numbers.
Genocide in the Propaganda System
Throughout the "decade of genocide" the media's
performance fitted perfectly the propaganda model Noam Chomsky
and I advanced in Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon, 1988). As the
first phase was U.S.-sponsored, the Cambodian victims were "unworthy,"
and the hundreds of thousands killed and several million refugees
were almost entirely ignored-the existence of "killing fields"
was only discovered in phase two. Of 45 columns by Sydney Schanberg,
who reported for the New York Times from Phnom Penh at the peak
of the 1973 bombing, only three granted first phase refugee victims
a few phrases to describe what was happening, and in not a single
article did he interview at length one of their vast numbers in
the nearby refugee camps.
Scholars uniformly pointed to the important contribution the
first phase made to Khmer Rouge behavior in phase two: by destroying
the fabric of society and providing the victors "with the
psychological ingredients of a violent, vengeful, and unrelenting
social revolution" (David Chandler). But for the mainstream
media, phase one did not exist; Cambodian history began with Khmer
Rouge genocide starting in April 1975. Now we had "worthy"
victims in a "gentle land" undergoing terror based on
Parisian intellectual/maoist theory, and reporters rushed to interview
refugees in Thailand. Jean Lacouture, in a well-publicized book
review in the New York Review of Books, claimed that the book,
Cambodia: Year Zero, cited Pol Pot officials "boasting"
that they had "eliminated" two million people. This
claim was withdrawn by Lacouture after it was shown to be a fabrication
(one of a number he advanced), but the two million figure remained
authoritative, and it and other forgeries and fabrications have
proved impossible to dislodge.
These convenient views prevail today: there is no phase one,
although it is sometimes admitted in passing that the United States
dropped some bombs on Cambodia before 1975 and aligned itself
with the "resistance" (including Pol Pot) after 1978.
All deaths in phase two are attributed to Pol Pot and his fanatical
beliefs, so that it is reasonable to identify him as the unique
villain deserving a war crimes trial. It can be suggested in the
Canadian media that maybe Nixon and Kissinger are war criminals
also (Thomas Walkum, "Let's try Kissinger along with Pol
Pot," Toronto Star, June 30, 1997), but not in the mainstream
U.S. press. Even a scholar like Ben Kiernan, who wrote eloquently
about the U.S. support of Pol Pot in the Reagan-Bush years, now
places an op ed column in the New York Times (June 20, 1997) denouncing
Pol Pot and calling for his trial, without even mentioning phase
one or suggesting any compromising of the case by the aggressive
post-1978 U.S. and Western support of the war criminal. Kiernan
had been subjected to a furious red-baiting campaign by the right-wing
fanatic Stephen Morris and Wall Street Journal editors, and in
an excellent illustration of the working of "flak" is
now busily proving his anti-Pol Pot credentials.
Anthony Lewis: Lying With Impunity
Another feature of the U.S. propaganda system is that contesting
propaganda campaigns is not permissible, and results in a blackout
and/or gross misrepresentation and vilification. As soon as Chomsky
and I criticized media coverage of Cambodia, in 1977, we, and
especially Chomsky, were accused of being apologists for Pol Pot.
William Shawcross eventually (and ludicrously) blamed Chomsky
for having paralyzed Western policy responses to genocide by his
(and my) single review article in the Nation.
Those who attack alleged "defenders of Pol Pot"
can lie with impunity. On June 23, Anthony Lewis jumped into the
fray, boldly denouncing Pol Pot and urging his prosecution for
war crimes. Lewis did mention the "bombing inflicted on the
peasant society by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger,"
but only as an introduction to the fact that Pol Pot outdid our
leaders. No suggestion of any causal relation between the bombing
(etc.) and the "one million Cambodians [who] lost their lives"
in phase two. Lewis also does not discuss whether, even if Pol
Pot was worse, the toll under Nixon and Kissinger wasn't high
enough to be worthy of a war crimes trial.
Lewis then goes on: "A few Western intellectuals, notably
Prof. Noam Chomsky, refused to believe what was going on in Cambodia.
At first, at least, they put the reports of killing down to a
conspiratorial effort by American politicians and press to destroy
the Cambodian revolution." This is a multiple lie: First,
we did not disbelieve the reports in general and were very clear
that "gruesome" atrocities were being carried out. We
did contest some blatant lies, like those of Lacouture, and media
gullibility, which in this case, where points were being scored
against an enemy. reached remarkable levels. Second, we never
believed or said that there was any conspiracy going on, and regularly
cited State Department experts as sources of plausible information.
Third, we weren't defending the "Cambodian revolution,"
and never believed that the propaganda campaign was designed to
destroy it; in fact, we stressed that its spokespersons didn't
do, or even propose doing, anything to help Cambodians. We saw
the propaganda campaign as aimed at Americans, to help reconstruct
an imperial ideology that had been badly damaged by the Vietnam
Lewis goes on to speak of "explaining away reports of
rights violations as a Western way of interfering in other countries,"
ignoring the fact that a vast stream of human rights reports on
El Salvador, Guatemala, Turkey, Colombia, Peru, etc., have involved
human rights violators funded and protected by the United States.
In our writings on Cambodia, Chomsky and I often point out that
the Indonesian invasion and genocidal actions in East Timor began
in the same year that Pol Pot took power in Cambodia; and we stressed
that in the case of East Timor, in contrast to Cambodia, the United
States as the primary weapons supplier and with extensive economic
relationships to Indonesia could have effectively protected human
rights. But that genocide was carried out by an ally, was approved
by U.S. officials, and silence prevailed in the U.S. media. The
sanctimonious Anthony Lewis does not address this anomaly.
Lewis can lie and mouth his clichés about the need
to bring his country's preferred war criminals to trial without
fear of reply because his newspaper gives him impunity from criticism.
A letter from Chomsky answering Lewis's lies, and several other
letters doing the same, were refused publication in the New York
The Collapsing Left
The left is so weak in the United States that establishment
propaganda themes and untruths often become part of the left's
own intellectual apparatus. One critic of Manufacturing Consent,
noting that even the antiwar leaders didn't refer to U.S. policy
in Vietnam as "aggression" or an "invasion,"
asked why we should expect more from the mainstream media? It
didn't occur to him that if the establishment view is so powerful
as to define the discourse boundaries even for dissidents, that
this shows an overwhelmingly potent propaganda system.
With the U.S. left today, the conventional wisdom on Cambodia,
as on many other issues, frequently predominates. In an article
in In These Times for July 29, Adam Fifield finds only Pol Pot
guilty of genocide, plays down the U.S. role, and gives the conventional
lie about Chomsky, who allegedly "disparaged the [news] accounts
as fabrications aimed at demonizing Pol Pot's noble revolution."
As in the case of Anthony Lewis it is unlikely that the author
ever bothered to look at any of Chomsky's writings on Cambodia.
The mainstream lie about Chomsky is reported without question
in this left journal, just as in the New York Times, although
in this case there is a right of reply.
A July 1997 piece on Cambodia by Philip S. Robertson Jr.,
in the Foreign Policy in Focus series issued by the supposedly
left Institute for Policy Studies and Interhemispheric Resource
Center, literally starts Cambodian history in 1975, gives a death
toll of the Khmer Rouge period as 1.5-2 million, without mentioning
any earlier events that might have contributed to the toll, expresses
regret at the "impunity" of Cambodian civil servants,
but nobody else, and urges that the United States "must continue
the vital work of bringing Pol Pot and the remaining KR leaders
to trial for genocide..."
With a left like this who needs a right?
Power as Justice
In one famous formulation, "the bigger the crime the
smaller the penalty" (Friedrich Schiller). This is not unreasonable
for single countries, but in international affairs we need a refinement:
the bigger the crime the smaller the penalty only if you are the
dominant power, servant of that power, or military victor. Though
Germany was powerful, some Nazi leaders were executed for war
crimes after the German defeat; Pol Pot may be tried because he
is weak, a loser, and no longer useful to the Great Powers as
he was from 1979 to the mid 1990s.
On the other hand, Suharto services U.S., Japanese, and other
global interests, is protected by the hegemonic power, and is
therefore a "moderate" rather than war criminal for
Western elites and mainstream media. Henry Kissinger's role in
the Cambodian genocide, Chile, and East Timor, makes him a first
class war criminal, arguably at least in the class of Hitler's
Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop, hanged in 1946. But Kissinger
has the impunity flowing naturally to the leaders and agents of
the victorious and dominant power. He gets a Nobel Peace prize,
is an honored member of national commissions, and is a favored
media guru and guest at public gatherings.
Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School,
University of Pennsylvania