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 trial.

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 War.

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 Times.

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

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