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Thoughts on the Khmer Rouge

USA Today had a story this weekend about the upcoming trials of 5 former leaders of the Khmer Rouge, responsible for atrocities that killed 1/3 of Cambodia's population in the late 1970's. It was one of the worst government-sponsored mass slaughters in a century known for government-sponsored mass slaughters.

The comments section is interesting. There are those who blame America. One commenter says "Khmer Rouge creation and slaughtering of millions in Cambodia are examples of reckless foreign policy by us Americans. The Vietnam War created instability in the region and we walked away from the mess. ". Another commenter responds "And all this time everyone thought it was the communists who killed all those people".

I have wrestled with these two views of the Cambodian Holocaust. My natural inclination  is to blame Pol Pot's radical political philosophy . Nuon Chea, one of the accused said "Our project was to transform the nature of society". The article points out that this was accomplished by  "cleans[ing]  the country of Western influence and traditional Cambodian culture." You don't destroy that many entrenched institutions without some serious collateral damage. To paraphrase another reformer, if you're going to make an omelet that big, you're going to have to break lots and lots of eggs.

On the other hand, I don't feel right dismissing our own culpability as fashionable America-bashing too easily. I've read a couple of biographies of Pol Pot, and while I haven't come to a firm conclusion, have decided that America is not without blame, but I'm still undecided as to the extent.

I do believe that Pol Pot came to his idealogy on his own and made his own decision to implement it. At worst, we created an opportunity for him. A good analogy is Hitler and The Treaty Of Versailles. Most historians agree that the war reparations required of Germany after World War I helped create fertile ground for a dictatorship like Hitler's. Yet hardly anybody wants to let Hitler off the hook because of those reparations.Pol Pot's utopian ideology was just as toxic as Hitler's racial ideology, and questions about how he was able to come to power don't let him or his ideology off the hook.

Those who concentrate on America's role in Cambodia are at risk of missing the larger lesson about the dangers of utopian political philosophy.