DEMOLISHING THE OLD CANARD OF ” MORAL EQUIVALENCE “
It is often the case that when two parties are in a dispute a temptation arises on the part of observers to resolve the question in their own minds by blaming both sides equally. Generally, this temptation is strongest when judging the merits of the argument and assigning blame involves some degree risk for the observer; avoiding judgement thus becomes a psychologically comfortable form of cowardice ( or at least laziness ). When this conduct is elevated into foreign policy, as with arms embargos that ” affect both sides equally ” as with the Spanish Civil War in 1936 or Bosnia in the 1990’s, moral equivalence becomes essentially a passive assist to the stronger party without reference to justice. Usually this means favoring the aggressor over the victim.
I mention this because H-DIPLO is running a thread entitled ” The Left, the Right and…” debating the philosophical influences that may have caused academics to become partisans or apologists for various dictatorships in the 20th century. Left-wing posters have raised the issue of Pol Pot’s years as an an anti-Vietnamese guerrilla in the 1980’s a proof of ” Right-wing ” perfidy.
A brilliant and completely devastating rebuttal was just posted by Stephen J. Morris of The Foreign Policy Institute. I can say I learned some things from it while admiring the comprehensively thorough rejection of the poster’s argument. Here it is in it’s entirety:
Some myths about Indochina die hard, even in academia. Doug Stokes is
completely wrong about “the right” (i.e. the British and US governments
of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) supporting Pol Pot more than
It was the “left” wing, to be precise communist, governments of Vietnam
and China that armed, trained and supported the rise to power of the
Khmers Rouges. The “left” government of Vietnam continued to support the
Khmers Rouges politically until 1977 and the “left” Chinese and North
Koreans supported them politically, economically and materially until
1993. The radical left in academia supported Pol Pot during most of his
time in power. The political “right” in the democratic west gave the
most limited and qualified political support, in the form of supporting
continued UN recognition to the Khmers Rouges guerrilla movement only
after it lost power, and even then it did so in order not to restore the
Khmers Rouges to power, but to find a way to reverse the Vietnamese
communist occupation, which China was determined to do regardless of
western policy, and to facilitate a noncommunist alternative for
Cambodia. No western government gave military aid to the Khmers Rouges.
One cannot base one’s knowledge of recent Cambodian history, as Mr
Stokes seems to have done, upon the writings of a notoriously unreliable
journalist named John Pilger (most of his print journalism is for the
English tabloid Daily Mirror newspaper). To get a sense of Pilger’s
credibility, one should recall that he recently described the United
States under George Bush as being like Nazi Germany. This is par for the
course. Pilger is an agit prop specialist, not a balanced analyst nor an
To get a sense of Pilger’s intellectual deceitfulness, in the article
cited Pilger refers to UN food supplies to the Khmers Rouges. This was
food, not weapons. It was authorised by the UN, not the “right.” KR
commanders ran the camps, and their soldiers benefited from the food.
But mostly civilians lived in the camps. Similarly UN food supplies went
to the larger refugee camps controlled by the noncommunist resistance.
It was all humanitarian aid. The UN responsibility was feeding
civilians, who would otherwise have starved, even if soldiers who
controlled them also were fed.
To make his case by sleight of hand, Pilger lumps together the
noncommunist resistance with the Khmers Rouges, despite their
organisational separation. There was a political alliance against the
Vietnamese occupation regime from 1982 on, imposed upon them by ASEAN to
enable ASEAN and others to help the noncommunists, because the UN in the
pre-Yugoslavia era of the “primacy of national sovereignty,” had
recognized the KR regime overthrown by Vietnam’s invasion as the
legitimate rulers of Cambodia, and an unsavory coalition with them was
the only way to give the noncommunists a role in Cambodia’s future.
Although the KR and the noncommunist resistance did occasionally
cooperate in battles against the Vietnamese and the regime that Hanoi
had installed, the noncommunists did not take military orders from the
Khmer Rouges, and mostly operated separately. Sometimes the KR attacked
the noncommunists, despite their political alliance. There was no
functioning common high command. Later, when the UN peace plan was put
into practice in 1992, the noncommunists completely separated from the
KR, and ran in the 1993 elections that the KR boycotted.
I have studied the international and domestic politics of Cambodia for
two decades, and as a producer-correspondent for CBS News in 1983 spent
several weeks with a cameraman in the jungle guerrilla strongholds of
the Khmers Rouges and the noncommunist resistance. I can state quite
categorically that all of the supply of arms to the Khmers Rouges came
from China, not from Britain or the United States. John Pilger is
telling falsehoods when he claims the contrary. The noncommunist
resistance received most of its arms overtly from the ASEAN countries,
some from China, and perhaps some assistance covertly from the CIA,
though I cannot be sure of the latter. The USA was backing the
noncommunist resistance (NCR) to win power in Cambodia through a
political settlement, and that was the reason it supported the tactical
political alliance the noncommunists had undertaken with the Khmers
For the record, I was a strong public advocate of the west, especially
the United States, arming the NCR, and was the only western academic to
publicly do so (first in the New York Times in December 1982 and then
most fully in The Atlantic Monthly January 1985, and also in various
other newspaper articles). In the 1980s I publicly berated the Reagan
Administration, for not doing more. From 1989 I interacted informally
with the then powerful and highly respected US Democratic Congressman
Stephen Solarz to achieve the UN mandate to take over and run an
election in Cambodia. (Solarz, it should be noted, though sneeringly
dismissed by Pilger as a “cold warrior,” is a liberal Democrat who holds
the high moral ground on Cambodia. He had held the first hearings on the
Khmers Rouges holocaust in May 1977, at a time when Pilger’s moralizing
tabloid journalism never expressed a moment’s concern for the Cambodian
victims of Pol Pot. At that forum Solarz also denounced the Institute
for Policy Studies witness Gareth Porter for his pro-KR testimony).
That the limited western support for the noncommunist resistance was
morally justified can be seen in the outcome of the UN sponsored 1993
elections in Cambodia. Despite the fact that the playing field was
tilted against the noncommunist parties (the ruling communist faction,
led by Hun Sen, carried out large scale intimidation, including murder,
of its opponents), the noncommunists won a majority of the vote.
Tragically the UN peacekeepers did not stand by the election outcome,
and allowed the losers (Hun Sen’s ruling faction) to be given a role in
the government after they threatened a civil war. How and why that
happened is another long and sad story.
Subsequently the Hun Sen regime, led by former Khmers Rouges commissars
launched a full scale coup d’etat in 1997, and welcomed the vast
majority of surviving Khmers Rouges back into Cambodian life, giving
some of the mass murderers posts in the Cambodian armed forces, and
engaging in lucrative business deals with others. Little wonder that Hun
Sen has opposed a full scale international tribunal to try and punish
the Khmers Rouges for crimes against humanity.
No western government ever endorsed the Khmers Rouges while they were in
power, nor did any western government, “right” or “left,” want them to
return to power. However a number of “left” western academics did
endorse the Khmers Rouges regime while it was in power, and either
denied the numerous published refugee and journalists reports of massive
atrocities by the regime, or else claimed that these atrocities were not
the fault of the central authorities but rather spontaneous expressions
of anger by poor peasants. Most notably the Americans Gareth Porter,
George Hildebrand, George McT. Kahin, and Michael Vickery, the
Englishman Malcolm Caldwell, the Frenchman Serge Thion (who also denied
the Nazi Holocaust, and was recently fired from his tenured academic
posting in Paris) and Thion’s sometime coauthor, the Australian Ben
Kiernan. Though all of these academic authors eventually ceased
supporting Pol Pot’s communist regime — but only after the KR split
with Hanoi became open in 1978 — they never apologised for misleading
the academic community and their own societies more generally about the
Cambodian holocaust, nor explained how they could have been responsible
for such bad scholarship. Perhaps they could use the forum of H-Diplo to
do so now.
I have documented most of the charges made in the last paragraph above,
in my article “Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot and Cornell,” published in The
National Interest, Summer 1989, and in “The Wrong Man to Investigate
Cambodia,” published in The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 1995. Full
citations are available there.
Stephen J. Morris.
The Foreign Policy Institute.
Johns Hopkins University.