[Marxism] Aggression Rights and Wrongs: Vietnam in Cambodia, US in Iraq

Dbachmozart at aol.com Dbachmozart at aol.com
Wed Jul 2 17:52:03 MDT 2008

[ Z Magazine, July-August 2008—forthcoming]

Aggression Rights and  Wrongs: Vietnam in Cambodia; The United States in Iraq

Edward S.  Herman

Vietnam Lacked Aggression Rights

A recent book by  Michael Vickery  (Cambodia: A Political Survey [Editions 
Funan: 2007])  dramatizes once again the fantastic double-standard that operates 
in cases of  cross-border attacks by the weak, and especially U.S. targets, 
and the strong,  especially the United States. Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 
December 1978, quickly  defeating the Khmer Rouge and pushing its remnant forces 
into Thailand. Vietnam  did this under considerable provocation, as the Pol Pot 
regime was extremely  hostile to Vietnam, carried out a major ethnic 
cleansing of  Vietnamese  within Cambodia, and mounted a series of  cross-border 
attacks that cost  many Vietnamese lives. Vietnam’s invasion was therefore based 
on, and a response  to, serious Cambodian provocations. By contrast, the U.S. 
invasion of Iraq in  2003 was not based on actions by Saddam Hussein injurious 
to the United  States—the Bush administration was obliged to construct a series 
of  lies  to justify the attack and occupation of a distant country, lies 
that had been  crudely (and obviously) fabricated before the attack but which 
were decisively  confirmed as lies in its aftermath.

Of course, both before and after the  invasion of Iraq it had been alleged 
that as Saddam Hussein was a brutal  dictator ousting him was desirable and 
therefore in itself justified the  invasion. But of course the same argument would 
justify the Vietnamese invasion  of  Cambodia, as Pol Pot had been furiously 
assailed as a mass killer and  “another Hitler,” and in a politically neutral 
world  his ouster by the  Vietnamese would have been treated at least equally 
as a liberation and part of  that “responsibility to protect” that has 
become a favorite of   contemporary interventionists—in fact more so as in the late 
1970s Pol Pot  ranked higher than Saddam as a  killer. And as noted Vietnam 
was acting at  least in part in genuine self-defense.

But following the failed U.S.  attempt to dominate Vietnam by military 
attack, that country was hated by U.S.  officials, who had actually cozied up to Pol 
Pot and his Khmer Rouge in the last  years of  Pol Pot’s rule, even while the 
U.S. and Western establishments  continued to denounce that rule as beyond 
the pale. A useful indication of the  shift was former U.S. official and Vietnam 
expert Douglas Pike’s November 1979  reference to Pol Pot as a “charismatic 
leader” of a “bloody but successful  peasant revolution.” Thus, although 
there had been Western calls for forcible  action against the Pol Pot regime, when 
Vietnam proceeded to oust that regime  the United States--hence its allies, 
clients.  and the “international  community”--  treated this as intolerable 
aggression. The view was that the  government soon installed in Phnom Penh was a 
Vietnamese and illegitimate   “puppet”—although it was composed of  
Cambodians who had been a political  faction in Cambodia under attack by Pol Pot—and 
that it was urgent that Vietnam  remove itself from Cambodia and allow an “
independent” Cambodian government to  be formed and rule.

What followed then was international condemnation  of  Vietnam, sanctions, a 
Chinese punitive invasion of Vietnam in February  1979, and a widespread 
refusal to recognize the new government of   Cambodia, with Cambodia’s seat at the 
UN kept for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on  the grounds of  “continuity” with 
the old Cambodia (as the State Department  informed congress in 1982). Pol 
Pot and the Khmer Rouge, along with several  other exiled Cambodian factions, 
having fled to Thailand, were welcomed there  and their cadres were protected 
and funded by China, the United States, and  other countries, with the Khmer 
Rouge free to make sporadic attacks on (and  steal timber from) their former 
homeland. (Imagine the U.S. and UN response if  Iran provided a homeland for an 
ousted  Saddam Hussein faction that made  periodic incursions into Iraq!)  The 
design in supporting  Pol Pot was  to “bleed” Vietnam, as explicitly stated by 
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, and  the United States cooperated fully in this 
bleeding enterprise, even though it  involved the huge hypocrisy of  
supporting “another Hitler” and imposing  further injury on the long-suffering 
Cambodian people, about whom many crocodile  tears had been shed while Pol Pot had 
ruled Cambodia.

Another part of the  U.S. and allied design was to force Vietnam to withdraw 
from Cambodia and to  replace the government it had brought into power with 
one either closely aligned  with the West or  impotent. The United States 
succeeded in getting the UN  and its allies to put enough pressure on the Cambodian 
government and Vietnam to  force them to accept an election process that would 
replace the existing  government. One problem with this solution was that the 
Cambodian government  that was to be replaced was doing a credible job, 
despite the horrendous  conditions that it inherited, and the refusal of  the “
international  community” to give any substantial aid to the badly damaged and 
slowly  recovering country.  According to a  UN report of 1990: “considering  the 
devastation inherited from war and internal strife, the centrally directed  
system of  economic management…has attained unquestionable successes,  
especially marked in  restoring productive capacity to a level of  normalcy  and 
accelerating the pace of economic growth to a respectable per  capita magnitude 
from the ruinously low level of the late 1970s.” Vickery claims  that this new 
government  also “made creditable progress in developing  social services, 
health care, education, agriculture, and vaccination programs  for children and 
animals.” It also performed relatively well on women’s rights  and civil 
liberties, given the immediate background and  in comparison with  its Cambodian 
predecessors and nearby neighbors (like Thailand).

A second  problem for Western interventionism was that Vietnam gradually 
withdrew its  military forces from Cambodia and had them all out by 1989, in 
keeping with  Vietnam’s promises and contrary to Western assurances that Vietnam 
intended a  permanent stay. This suggested that the Cambodian government no 
longer needed  the Vietnamese military presence to govern, and in another 
political context it  might have raised questions about the need for foreign 
intervention to assure  “independence.” But all of this was irrelevant to the United 
States, which  simply refused to accept a government friendly toward and 
influenced by the  Vietnamese. That government had to be ousted, no matter what the 
consequences,  and the experiences of  post-ouster Guatemala (1954 onward) and 
post-ouster  Nicaragua (1990 onward) indicated that the consequences could  
be painful  and even disastrous to the indigenous population.

A third problem for the  West was that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge (KR) was the 
most powerful faction across  the border in Thailand and anxious to return to 
power. Not only did this not  interfere with the effort at regime change, the 
United States and its allies  actually insisted that the KR be one of the 
constituent parties that would take  part in an election for the new government. The 
U.S. and its allies organized a  Paris conference in 1991 to firm up a massive 
international intervention in  Cambodia, with the supposedly regime-changing 
election to be held in 1993. This  regime change process terminated the 
progress made by the post-KR government, by  introducing neoliberal rules that cut 
back needed social programs, and via the  new deliberately splintering 
political arrangements that made the government  more corrupt and less workable. 
Amusingly, the electoral rules imposed to help  weaken the power of the 
Vietnam-sponsored government, including proportional  voting, succeeded in allowing that 
earlier government to retain preeminent  power, although its effectiveness was 
reduced as it struggled in a more hostile  environment. But the power of the 
KR, which had rested heavily on Western  subsidy and diplomatic support, 
dwindled quickly, although its indigenous  partners, now uneasily linked to the new 
government, maintained the KR’s  venomous hostility toward Vietnam and 

In short, what has been  called the “Nicaragua strategy,”  with an 
international boycott and  sanctions, a subsidized contra force  attacking the target 
state and  forcing it to spend resources on defense, and an election designed 
to finalize  regime change, was used in the case of Cambodia, and was partially 
successful:  it succeeded in imposing a great deal of pain on the target 
population, and  terminated economic and social progress under a government 
opposed by the United  States; but it did not succeed, as in Guatemala and 
Nicaragua, in fully  effecting a regime change. The heavy costs to the Cambodian people 
resulting  from Western (U.S.) hostility to the Cambodian government 
continues up to  today.

But of course Vietnam did not have aggression rights, so its  occupation and 
the government that it installed had to be removed in the  interests of  
international law and justice! And with the help of  Pol  Pot and the Khmer Rouge!

The United States Has Aggression  Rights

In the case of the U.S. invasion-occupation of Iraq, all the  principles that 
affected Vietnam and Cambodia are stood on their  head.

(1) Although in contrast with the Vietnam-Cambodia case the United  States 
invasion was based on no provocation by the distant victim state, no  sanctions 
were imposed by the UN or international community, and although the  “
humanitarian interventionists” had proclaimed a newly accepted “responsibility  to 
protect,” no protection was offered the Iraqis from March 2003 up to the  present
—and David Rieff, George Packer,  Samantha Power, Michael Ignatieff,  Thomas 
G. Weiss , Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-Moon and company have never called upon the  
world to intervene to protect the Iraqis  despite a million or more Iraqi  
deaths, over 4 million refugees, and a steady stream of  Falluja type  assaults and 
massacres—and although, according to Thomas Weiss, of the  International 
Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, the  responsibility to use force 
to protect “kicks in…if a state is manifestly unable  or unwilling to protect 
its citizens,” as is manifestly the case with Iraq   under U.S. attack and 

(2)  No demand has been made that  the invader get out, and the Security 
Council even voted shortly after the  invasion to give the invader occupation 
rights (under Security Council  Resolution 1546, June 8, 2003, which might be 
called the U.S. “pacification  rights” resolution); and this has not been altered 
even though the invader has  made it plain that he intends to stay 
indefinitely with a gigantic Embassy, a  number of very large “enduring bases,” and 
steady efforts to negotiate a  long-term presence with the Iraqi government.

(3) No protest has been  made that the government of  Iraq, militarily and 
financially dependent on  the occupation, is not  truly “independent,” and that 
independence would  require the withdrawal of the occupation army and other 
conditions that might  make an election  free and meaningful (points forcibly 
made as regards the  Vietnam occupation of Cambodia, or as regards Syria in 

(4) In  the decisions on “surges” and debates on how long the United States 
will stay in  Iraq, neither the conditions of  true independence, nor the 
demands  of  international law, nor the desires of the Iraqi people, enter the  
discussion (and polls there have regularly shown that the  Iraqis, as well  the 
U.S. public want us out). These are decisions for the U.S. ruling elite,  
grounded in U.S. aggression rights and the cowardice and lack of moral force of  
the international community.

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