(10:00PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

1975. Vietnam. Laos. Cambodia. (China). USA

2010. Iraq. Iran. Afghanistan. Pakistan. Yemen?. (Russia). USA

What tangled webs.


I want to ask / urge you dharma bums to go read this 2007 piece I came cross the other day and help me get a handle on this thing that has been lurking and teasing in my mind. This stuff is really out of my league and terribly complex, but … shudder… somebody needs to connect the dots. Are there parallels to be drawn?  This is really bugging me. I’m sorry I can’t explain better, it’s shadows and light still.

EDIT: Consider this an open invitation to venture in to comments below and help me learn and understand.

The writer of this piece, Bruce Sharp, has a great website Mekong Network mostly about Southeast Asia.

This particular piece, Starting From Zero, however is a unique one there: Written in response to an article by William Shawcross, this article compares events in Cambodia, and current events in Iraq.  It’s a response to this: Remember: for Cambodia, read Iraq published in the timesonline uk, also 2007.

Shawcross, in his piece, feels the USA needs to stay there and basically concludes:

Of course huge mistakes have been made. We should lament and criticise them but not dismiss the underlying effort. President Bush’s new strategy (and probably his last throw) is to “surge” thousands of US troops into Baghdad. Rather than abusing him we should all be hoping that it is not too little too late.

The consequences of an American defeat in Iraq would be even worse than in IndoChina. As the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Musab al-Zarqawi, said before he was killed by a US air strike: “The shedding of Muslim blood is allowed in order to disrupt the greater evil of disrupting jihad.”

If Iraq collapses, such nihilist killing will spread far wider. As in Cambodia, bloody mass murder is the only alternative to what the US-led coalition is trying to achieve. Thanks to the sacrifice of young American and British soldiers, and to the courage of millions of ordinary Iraqis, the country can still have a better future – if we remain committed. Remember 1975.

Sharp disagrees.

Rationality seems to be missing from Shawcross’ emotional appeal; and governed by passion rather than reason, he seems to believe that his opponents, too, are motivated by blind emotion. “[F]or too many pundits,” Shawcross writes, “hatred (and it really is that) of Bush and Blair dominates perceptions.”

Hatred, dominating our perceptions: It is as if Shawcross believes this is all about some petty personal grievance. Perhaps Tony Blair once pelted our car with eggs back in high school, and maybe George Bush yanked down our trousers in the 7th grade lunch room.

Shawcross’ insinuation – that those who disagree with the policy in Iraq are motivated by vile, hateful impulses – reflects a belief deeply held by many on the Right.

In Indochina, the Right could, with justification, argue that the Left’s ideology rendered them blind to the abuses and atrocities committed by the Communists. (Shawcross himself deserves credit for not succumbing to this blindness.) Communism had wide appeal to leftist intellectuals. The same cannot be said of radical Islam: except for Ann Coulter, does anyone truly believe that leftists are in favor of a society based on Sharia law?

Leftists, centrists, realists… we are all mired in the mess that the Neocons have created. The Right’s tactic of berating those who disagree with the paths chosen by Bush and Blair is like blaming Newton for that damned pesky gravity.

“Of course huge mistakes have been made,” Shawcross admits. “We should lament and criticise them but not dismiss the underlying effort.” In other words: yes, it is a horrible mess, but still, it was a good idea just the same.

The Right needs to understand: we have no reason to trust your judgment. You finally realize that “huge mistakes have been made,” although you don’t seem ready to admit that you are the ones who made them.

If you want us to trust your judgment, show us where you went wrong. Explain the mistake in your calculations: tell us why we didn’t wind up with the result that you assured us we would get. Our fear, you see, is that you still don’t know where you went wrong. We believe that you are going to keep making the same mistakes.

Bush’s “surge” strategy is nothing but more of the same. Shawcross, however, thinks that we should all jump on the bandwagon: “Rather than abusing him we should all be hoping that it is not too little too late.”

Blind hope and blind faith: this is all we are offered.

Mr. Shawcross, I hope that it isn’t too little, too late. But blind hope is a lousy substitute for sensible policy. Does a surge stand any realistic chance of making a difference? Do we believe our enemies to be idiots? They are brutal, despicable thugs… but are they fools? A temporary surge in troop strength can be rendered irrelevant if the enemy adopts a strategy that can be summarized in a mere five words: Lay low for a while.

The harsh truth is this: If you expect to win militarily, be prepared to commit many more troops. If you’d like an estimate of how many it will take, I would suggest you solicit the opinion of Gen. Eric Shinseki.

We have a limited window in which to address past mistakes. Take a few steps down the wrong path, and you can still reverse your course and arrive at your intended destination;  but if you proceed down the wrong path for four years, burning bridges behind you as you go, you are going to find it rather more difficult to correct your missteps.

Success in Iraq – if it can still be salvaged – will require both skillful diplomacy, and a broad coalition. Neither of those things is possible as long as the Neocons continue to disparage the motives and the intelligence of those who tried to warn them that invasions, regime change, and nation building are not cakewalks.

It’s long but worth the trip, please go read it, and comment here. I can’t really summarize or expand on it. Sharp has much more. The thing that’s bugging me is more in the direction of the tangled web of it all. The way neighboring Cambodia and Laos were shuffled and exploited and shopped by the Big Guys, USA and China. I have some Ostrich Guilt, myself personally, but I know that at the time, 1975, “average Americans” were clueless, well the outside world was, as to the horrors there. Who knew?

And I cant help but ask… who knows now? In this different realm, different war, different culture…. different “boogeyman”,  but similar game? In his piece, Sharp goes into depth with the history of IndoChina then.

More than two million of those deaths came in the “gentle land” of Cambodia. (7)  In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew invokes the familiar metaphor, describing the country as “that oasis of peace and prosperity in the war-torn Indochina of the 1960s.” (8)  By the late Sixties, however, Cambodia’s position was precarious: the Vietnamese communists had established clandestine bases inside Cambodian territory, and the Americans were becoming increasingly frustrated.

The jungle sanctuaries established by the Vietnamese were of little consequence to most Cambodians; after all, for obvious reasons, they were in remote areas. Under the Johnson Administration, Viet Cong and NVA targets inside Cambodia were occasionally attacked, but these were tactical strikes, and the effects on Cambodia were negligible. (9)  Nixon, however, had no intention of playing the same cat-and-mouse game. He quickly escalated the attacks to include B-52 strikes.

Cambodia’s leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, had long tolerated the intrusions from both the Vietnamese and the Americans. Realistically, his small country was powerless against either side; as the Prince once remarked in a speech, “When two elephants are fighting, the ant should step aside.” (10)  Thus, while he allowed the Vietnamese to establish bases inside Cambodia, he also informed an American ambassador that he did not object if American forces engaged in “hot pursuit” of enemy soldiers in unpopulated areas. (11)

Determined to keep his country out of the war, he tilted toward one side or the other as he deemed necessary. “I believe in a ‘sawtooth diplomacy,'” Sihanouk once remarked. “The path of neutrality is never a straight line.” (12)  Within his government, however, a right-wing faction led by Marshall Lon Nol had no stomach for Sihanouk’s vacillations. While Sihanouk was traveling abroad, they cast their lot with the Americans and overthrew the Prince in a coup in March 1970.

The results fit the pattern Morgenthau had warned of years earlier: Cambodia, suddenly transformed into an American outpost, immediately became the victim of communist aggression and subversion. Lon Nol’s corrupt, incompetent government was indeed American military power at its weakest, and the dominant local powers – the North Vietnamese, and the Chinese – immediately responded with vastly superior military and political power.

The Vietnamese communists contributed their military power, mauling Lon Nol’s inexperienced, poorly-equipped troops. The Chinese, meanwhile, also contributed arms and munitions, but their more important contribution was political: Chou En-lai persuaded Sihanouk to ally himself with his erstwhile enemies, the Khmer Rouge communists. (13)

Before the coup, Cambodia’s own communists, the Khmer Rouge, were an irrelevant, marginal force, with no hope of attaining power. As one writer put it: “The 1970-75 war did not prevent the Khmer Rouge coming to power; it created them and created the opportunity for them to come to power.” And by 1975, “Cambodian society had been overturned. Just as the Bolsheviks could come to power in Russia only after the destruction of World War I, so the Khmer Rouge were enabled to control Cambodia only by the 1970-75 war.” (14)

The author of those words? William Shawcross.

It is difficult to escape the feeling that we learned little from Indochina.

His concluding words are rather chilling.

It was not your motives that created this disaster. It was your policies.

Mr. Shawcross tells us: Remember 1975.

He does not ask us to remember the painful prelude to 1975. He does not ask us to remember the secret bombing, or the invasion, or the coup, or the war that spanned three decades. Just 1975.

Thirty-two years ago, when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, they proclaimed that a new era had dawned. It was, they declared, “Year Zero.” History was starting over again: Memories were to be discarded. What came before was unimportant.

Sadly, it would appear that Mr. Shawcross believes this, too.

I sure would like to hear what this guy has to say now. Maybe I should write him. (havent found anything very new from him with the google).


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  1. I know.

    complicated Pictures, Images and Photos

  2. … the whole thing but was gobsmacked (yes! gobsmacked) by the first quote.

    Sounds exactly like the “domino theory” I grew up with here in the good old U S of A.

    Not to even mention the ludicrous notion that “jihad” (whatever Shawcross means by that) is in any way analogous to an enemy army from a sovereign nation.

    Really, I grew up with this kind of thinking.  I believe it’s called “cold war” thinking.

    But yeah, if what you really want is to preserve empire, sure, I can understand the POV.

    Now will go read the rest.

    • TMC on January 8, 2010 at 23:47

    I’ll comment more later. I have another shift and was working on gathering data for essays for the weekend.

    Cold hard fact is that we created this with our arrogant policies and lack of understanding of the Muslim world, just as we did in Southeast Asia. And we continue with the same mistakes out of willful ignorance.

    Yes,….. what tangled webs we weave, when we practice to deceive. (Sir Walter Scott)

  3. So, who made these mistakes ? At least he could have the honesty to say the US government and certain individuals made the mistakes.

    The killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians is passed off as if it was someone who forgot to cross their T’s or dot their I’s,– “hey just a mistake”

    Shawcross: “Rather than abusing him..” (Bush)

                                                                                  ……..Here Shawcross conflates criticism of the president to abuse, a word which is entirely absent in his take on the truly abusive Iraq War. I could go on but it’s a friday and I’m in a good mood.

    Thanks, LL for sharing this.

  4. copied from essay body above (Sharp):

    Cambodia’s leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, had long tolerated the intrusions from both the Vietnamese and the Americans. Realistically, his small country was powerless against either side; as the Prince once remarked in a speech, “When two elephants are fighting, the ant should step aside.”

    I wonder who’s next? Who’s the “ant”?

    The modern Republic of Yemen was born in 1990 when traditionalist North Yemen and Marxist South Yemen merged after years of border wars and skirmishes. But the peace broke down in 1994 and a short civil war ended in defeat for separatist southerners and the survival of the unified Yemen.


    Rock Palace, Sanaa, restored in 2005

    Politics: President Ali Abdallah Saleh has been in power since 1978. Shia rebels led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi have been conducting a low-level insurgency in the north

    Economy: Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East; economic difficulties have sparked unrest

    International: Yemen has been co-operating in the US-led “war on terror”, risking domestic resentment

    Since unification Yemen has been modernising and opening up to the world, but it still maintains much of its tribal character and old ways. Tensions persist between the north and the south; some southerners say the northern part of the state is economically privileged.

    Since the summer of 2009, hundreds have been killed and tens of thousands displaced by clashes between government troops and north-western rebels belonging to the Zaidi sect, a branch of Shia Islam in the mainly Sunni country. The conflict has acquired a regional dimension, with the Yemeni authorities accusing Iran of backing the rebels, while the rebels accuse Saudi Arabia of supporting the Yemeni government.

    source: BBC News website


  5. The United States basically destroyed Cambodia.  Overthrow a neutralist government, carpet-bombed it with B-52s, ripped apart its fragile economy.  Left the ravaged remains in the hands of ideological amateurs who were pumped up by the Chinese with their anti-Soviet front against the Soviet-supported Vietnamese.

    Who ultimately saved what was left of Kampuchean (Cambodian) society?  The Vietnamese.

    Sideshow was a masterpiece expose of the mindless brutality of U.S. cold war policy.  He joins the legions of former progressives who have become the most rabid of right-wingers, using their former leftist credentials as a meal-ticket.

    It’s not so complicated.  As old leftists used to say, when someone says its complicated, reach for your wallet.

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