Relations Between the Khmer Rouge and the American Government
The relations between the Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia and that of the United States, while spanning many decades and involving numerous administrations, were primarily motivated by the national interest as either side came to define it.
For successive American regimes, Cold War politics and the self-interest it engendered guided the foreign policy imperatives of the time. The American policy shift from one end of the spectrum to the other - tentatively opposing the Khmer Rouge initially while supporting them in later years - can easily be viewed as contradictory but in fact both had their roots with one calculus of power: furthering the power of the United States. It is with this starting point that any analysis of American foreign policy must predominate.
The Khmer Rouge was allied early on with the Communists in Vietnam helping them fight a low-level insurgency against the Americans in Vietnam. In the 1970's, the Khmer rouge turned its sights on the American-backed Lon Nol regime that had overthrown the popular government in Cambodia. Helped by the Vietnamese Communists, who had their own interests in seeing a victorious Khmer government take power of Cambodia (the Ho Chi Minh trail being the most vital), the Khmer Rouge finally took the capital Pnem Penh in 1975.
In these initial stages, the American response towards the Khmer was largely anti-communist. The Khmer Rouge were being helped by both the Chinese and the Vietnamese communists who sought to expand influence and power in the region. The Americans were seeking a reliable and expedient partner that could help end the communist sanctuaries on the Vietnam-Cambodia border which were degrading their ability to crush the Vietnamese communists. Hence, the Americans helped orchestrate a coup that brought Lon Nol to power, a fervent supporter of the United states.
The period between 1975 and 1979, when the purist Khmer Rouge regime was in power in Cambodia, the Carter administration's response while anti-communist became more timid that that of previous administrations. This was reflective of the general mood in Congress and the country where a "South-Asian fatigue"set into place precluding any action to help the Cambodian victims of genocide.
But as the geo-political realities on the ground changed, with the invasion of Cambodia by a Soviet-backed Vietnam, so would the American response. While keeping in mind the dangers of engaging in false equivalences between the Khmer Genocide and the Carter's administration's foreign policies, one can take note of the similar genesis of power that underlie both policies in quoting journalist Elizabeth Becker's remarks about Khmer motivations: "The Khmer Rouge approached battle as they approached all other matters, devoted to achieving an objective at whatever cost...'not to worry about how many got killed because it didn't matter.'" If we juxtapose this statement with one from National Security Advisor to Carter, Brzezinski - "I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot. I encouraged the Thai to help the Khmer Rouge. The question was how to help the Cambodian people. Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him. But China could" - then we begin to see the brutality of American Cold War decision-making.
We can also begin to understand why the Americans supported the Khmer after 1979. For Carter and Brzezinski, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia represented the expansion of Soviet influence in South-East Asia, not to mention the flagrant touting of international law and border integrity. The U.S. also wanted to please China who was backing the Khmer. These themes are repeated by Clymer's analysis, who believes that Carter did not want to legitimize the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia by not backing ASEAN and the Chinese.
Brenda Fewster expands on this theme by demonstrating how the unfolding refugee crisis in Cambodia was conveniently exploited by the American administration to not only blame the Vietnamese occupying force for the looming disaster but also to revive the Khmer fighting forces through the humanitarian aid was being delivered to the camps.