Obama’s Nixonian Moves

Killing TreeI’ve just returned from a 5 week trip to Southeast Asia, including a wrenching morning spent in Tuol Sleng, the infamous torture prison in Phnom Phenh, and the nearby killing fields where Pol Pot’s crews saved their own lives by murdering others.  The rise of the Khmer Rouge and its turn from its avowed resistance and revolutionary aims to mass citizen slaughter had many causes, the sequence and force of which are still being debated.  One thing is clear, however.  Massive US bombing in Cambodia’s southeast brought a level of destruction unprecedented until then, and gave Khmer Rouge recruiters convincing arguments among the survivors to join and fight those allied to those who had wiped out their families.

This bombing has recently been in the news as, of  all things, a precedent cited by President Obama for the legality of drone attacks on people living in countries not at war with the United States. As the author points out, not only is the Administration argument wrong on the morality, it is wrong on the facts.


“ON March 17, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon began a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, sending B-52 bombers over the border from South Vietnam. This episode, largely buried in history, resurfaced recently in an unexpected place: the Obama administration’s “white paper” justifying targeted killings of Americans suspected of involvement in terrorism.

…  On Page 4 of the unclassified 16-page “white paper,” Justice Department lawyers tried to refute the argument that international law does not support extending armed conflict outside a battlefield. They cited as historical authority a speech given May 28, 1970, by John R. Stevenson, then the top lawyer for the State Department, following the United States’ invasion of Cambodia.

Since 1965, “the territory of Cambodia has been used by North Vietnam as a base of military operations,” he told the New York City Bar Association. “It long ago reached a level that would have justified us in taking appropriate measures of self-defense on the territory of Cambodia. However, except for scattered instances of returning fire across the border, we refrained until April from taking such action in Cambodia.”

In fact, Nixon had begun his secret bombing of Cambodia more than a year earlier. (It is not clear whether Mr. Stevenson knew this.) So the Obama administration’s lawyers have cited a statement that was patently false.

A more limited, secret bombing campaign in Cambodia had begun in 1965 during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, but Nixon escalated it to carpet-bombing. The aim was to disrupt Communist bases and supply routes. The New York Times reported on it two months after it began, but the White House denied it, and the trail went cold. When the bombing began, Nixon even kept it a secret from his secretary of state, William P. Rogers. Worried about leaks, Nixon told Henry A. Kissinger, his national security adviser: “State is to be notified only after the point of no return.”

The bombing campaign, called Operation Breakfast, was carried out through out-and-out deception. Sixty B-52 bombers were prepared for a bombing run over targets in Vietnam. After the usual pre-mission briefing, pilots and navigators of 48 planes were then pulled aside and informed that they would receive new coordinates from a radar installation in Vietnam. Their planes would be diverted to Cambodia. But the destination was kept secret even from some crew members. The historian Marilyn B. Young found an “elaborate system of double reporting,” such that “even the secret records of B-52 bombing targets were falsified so that nowhere was it recorded that the raids had ever taken place.”

So the sort of “scattered instances of returning fire across the border” cited by Mr. Stevenson were actually regular bombing runs by B-52’s. Over 14 months, nearly 4,000 flights dropped 103,921 tons of explosives, followed by more extensive bombing farther into Cambodia.

… Critics have argued that the ultimate result of Nixon’s strategy was to destabilize the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and enable the Khmer Rouge’s ascent to power in 1975, and the subsequent genocide.

NY Times: Dudziak

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