Pol Pot And Kissinger

Edward S. Herman

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 strenously 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

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

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 airforce 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
(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

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
, 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

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 cliches
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

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

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

Edward S. Herman is Professor
Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of
Pennsylvania and a regular contributor to Z Magazine.