Sunday, January 02, 2005

Cambodia and Iran

I can't remember much from the time about the Vietnam War, but I do recall something by Noam Chomsky that said that whereas most foreign policy issues were very complex, this one was simple: there was no justification for the US intervention. Another theory went something along these lines: if China felt less pressure from the US in the South-East, it could turn its attention towards Russia (the Soviet Union); this would distract Russia, who would then - hey presto - be less of threat to Western  Europe. The only snag with this was that North Vietnam was not an extension of China, but looked more to Moscow for support.

For example, this from 1986: 'The Chinese, as "punishment" for Hanoi's invasion of Cambodia, launched a brief attack on several northern provinces of Vietnam in February 1979. Today Beijing still supports the rebel Khmer Rouge forces and maintains military pressure on Hanoi from its border with Vietnam.'

More recently, 'Pol Pot:  The History of a Nightmare' by Philip Short, reviewed by Justin Wintle (FT magazine, 6 Nov) describes the Khmer Rouge leaders - Pol Pot and others - 'who had swallowed, but never adequately digested, a Stalinist version of Marxism-Leninism while studying in Paris in the early 1950s.' Just like under Stalin, even top military leaders and party members were liable to be tortured and executed.

All told, somewhere between one-and-a-half and two million Cambodians died as a result of Khmer Rouge "policies" - out of a population that in 1975 numbered about seven million: quantitively far fewer than the victims of Mao Zedong or Stalin, but proportionately much greater.
The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong built sanctuaries across the border, inviting first South Vietnam, then  the US, to "widen the war", with devastating results. Suffering dreadful aerial bombardment, large swathes of Cambodia's peasant population were literally driven into the nascent Khmer Rouge's arms.
So now, maybe some parallels, if not very close ones, could be drawn with more recent events in the Middle East. Some are starting to think that the wrong country was targeted: Iraq does not appear to have been close to having nuclear weapons; Iran may be. A US intervention in one place (Vietnam / Iraq) leads to unforeseen consequences in a neighbouring country (Cambodia / Iran). On the other hand, the comparison could be made the other way: Iran was seen as the big danger in the 1980s, but in the event the Iraqi regime proved to be a greater threat to its own people (and the region).

Probably, the main lesson to be drawn is to avoid seeing one homogenous enemy, whether Communism or Islamism, and ignoring key differences.

Updated 4 Jan


The Hugh Grant character in Bridget Jones, asked about the situation in Chechnya:
- I couldn't give a f**k, Jones.


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