From WikiLeaks to Killing Fields: a lesson for liberals

From WikiLeaks to Killing Fields: a lesson for liberals

Innocent civilians become the tragic casualties of war. Insurgents plant thousands of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Special-ops teams hunt down insurgents. The Taliban may have a few Stinger missiles. Pakistan plays a double game with the Taliban. The US government can’t keep its secrets. The New York Times has about as much regard for those secrets as a British tabloid has for a starlet’s privacy. The Obama administration blames everything on Bush.

Is any of this news? Not exactly.

Still, you’d be forgiven for thinking it is, given the Pentagon Papers-style treatment now being accorded to the WikiLeak of 92,000 classified documents on the Afghan war. John Kerry says the documents “raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan". WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sees “evidence of war crimes". A Time magazine columnist, making explicit the comparison with the Vietnam war, offers that the leak underscores “how futile the situation in Afghanistan is".

We’ll see about that. In the meantime, take note of another item in the news: The recent conviction by a UN tribunal of former Khmer Rouge prison commandant Kaing Guek Eav—better known as “Comrade Duch"—to 19 years in prison for his role in the Cambodian genocide. Remarkably, Duch is the first senior Khmer Rouge official to be convicted for the crimes of Pol Pot’s regime, more than three decades after it was evicted from Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian genocide is especially worth recalling today not only for what it was, but for the public debates in the West that immediately preceded it. “The greatest gift our country can give to the Cambodian people is peace, not guns," said then-congressman, now senator, Chris Dodd, by way of making the case against the Ford administration’s bid to extend military assistance to the pro-American government of Lon Nol.

In The New York Times, Sydney Schanberg reported from Cambodia that “it is difficult to imagine how (Cambodian) lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone". Schanberg added that “it would be tendentious to forecast (genocide) as a national policy under a Communist government once the war is over".

A year later, Schanberg was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, though not for tendentiousness.

All in all, the US’ withdrawal from South-East Asia resulted in the killing of an estimated 165,000 South Vietnamese in so-called re-education camps; the mass exodus of one million boat people, a quarter of whom died at sea; the mass murder, estimated at 100,000, of Laos’s Hmong people; and the killing of somewhere between one million and two million Cambodians.

Now we have the debate over Afghanistan. Should the US begin to withdraw, and if so, how soon and by how much? These are important questions, though it’s interesting to note how so many of the same people—including the Time columnist mentioned above—who now see nothing but quagmire and futility in Afghanistan were making precisely the same noises about Iraq in 2007. As was once said about the old Bourbon dynasty, they forget nothing—and they learn nothing.

It’s also interesting to note that the further the debate moves politically leftward, the louder the calls for an immediate withdrawal become. Here again, the same people who protest every drone strike as a violation of the laws of war, or trumpet every inflated Taliban claim of civilian casualties as irrefutable fact, also want the US out of Afghanistan. Right now. For the sake of peace.

As it happens, there is a defensible, if flawed, case for an American exit from Afghanistan. It is an argument based on a bloodless tabulation of economic and strategic costs and benefits, an argument about whether—as former secretary of state James Baker was alleged to have said about the Balkans—the US really has a dog in this fight. It is an argument that discounts considerations of American sacrifice and honour. It is an argument that is profoundly indifferent to whatever furies will engulf Afghanistan once the Taliban returns, as surely they will, provided the spillover effects are somehow contained.

In an old-fashioned sense, it is a very Republican argument. Just ask Pat Buchanan.

But somewhere in the bowels of the State Department, somebody might want to think hard about the human consequences of US withdrawal. What happens to the Afghan women who removed their burqas in the late fall of 2001, or the girls who enrolled in government schools? What happens to the army officers and civil servants who cooperated with the coalition? What happens to the villagers who stood with us when we asked them to?

It is a peculiar fact of modern liberalism that its best principles have most often been betrayed by self-described liberals. As with Cambodia, they may come to know it only when —for Afghans, at least—it is too late.

Bret Stephens is a columnist with ‘The Wall Street Journal’


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