Bush Rewrites History Again

Help me, please, I shouldn’t be wasting my time and energy on such a hopeless cause, but the spectacle of the President of this country uttering patent nonsense to justify our continued occupation of Iraq is more than I can bear to watch. So forgive me for venting a bit.

The latest misrepresentation of facts comes in his speech earlier today. As reported in the Financial Times:

George W. Bush on Wednesday said the consequences of a US withdrawal from Iraq could echo the “killing fields” genocide that destroyed Cambodia after the US pulled out from Vietnam in the mid-1970s….

“The price of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like “boat people”, “re-education camps” and “killing fields”, Mr Bush said. “Iraq is a central front in the war on terror. Withdrawal without getting the job done would be a disaster.”

While counterfactual history is a sticky enterprise, it’s likely that had the US withdrawn before 1970 (which was the path the US appeared to be on when Nixon came to office), Pol Pot’s agrarian revolt would have failed.

If you frame what happened in Cambodia narrowly, it is true that North Vietnam was primarily responsible for turning the Khymer Rouge into an effective fighting force, and that the withdrawal of the US from Vietnam enabled Pol Pot to redirect his forces from the war to establishing his nightmarish agrarian regime.

Widen the frame, however, and the more plausible story is the continued US involvement, which allowed South Vietnam to survive well past its sell-by date, set in motion the conditions that allowed Pol Pot to prevail.

North Vietnam had allied with the King Sihanouk, and had rebuffed repeated overtures by Pol Pot. However, in 1970, the Khmer Rouge began courting Sihanouk and painting the right as pro-US. Both sides probably recognized this as a marriage of convenience. Sihanouk did himself in politically by his botched attempt to discredit the right. From Wikipedia:

Up to 1969, the Khmer Rouge had been very anti-Sihanouk…. But it was decided….to shift the party’s propaganda to be against the right-wing parties of Cambodia and their supposed pro-American attitudes….

The road to power for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was opened by the events of January 1970 in Cambodia. Sihanouk, while out of the country, ordered the government to stage anti-Vietnamese protests in the capital. The protesters quickly went out of control and wrecked the embassies of both North Vietnam and the South Vietnam. Sihanouk, who had ordered the protests, then denounced them from Paris and blamed unnamed individuals in Cambodia for them. These actions, along with intrigues by Sihanouk’s followers in Cambodia, convinced the government that he should be removed as head of state. The National Assembly voted to remove Sihanouk from office. Afterward, the government closed Cambodia’s ports to Vietnamese weapons traffic and demanded that the Vietnamese leave Cambodia.

The North Vietnamese reacted to the political changes in Cambodia by sending Premier Pham Van Dong to meet Sihanouk in China and recruit him into an alliance with the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot was also contacted by the Vietnamese who now offered him whatever resources he wanted for his insurgency against the Cambodian government. Pol Pot and Sihanouk were actually in Beijing at the same time but the Vietnamese and Chinese leaders never informed Sihanouk of the presence of Pol Pot or allowed the two men to meet. Shortly after, Sihanouk issued an appeal by radio to the people of Cambodia to rise up against the government and support the Khmer Rouge. In May 1970, Pol Pot finally returned to Cambodia and the pace of the insurgency greatly increased.

Earlier, on March 29, 1970, the Vietnamese had taken matters into their own hands and launched an offensive against the Cambodian army. A force of 40,000 Vietnamese quickly overran large parts of eastern Cambodia reaching to within 15 miles of Phnom Penh before being pushed back. In these battles the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot played a very small role….

Through 1971, the Vietnamese (North Vietnamese and Viet Cong) did most of the fighting against the Cambodian government while Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge functioned almost as auxiliaries to their forces. Pol Pot took advantage of the situation to gather in new recruits and to train them to a higher standard than previously was possible….

The critical bit is this: the North Vietnamese made Pol Pot. The only reason they did so was they needed supply lines through Cambodia to prosecute the war with the South. Had we withdrawn earlier, or better yet, never gotten involved in Vietnam, the South would have fallen and there would have been no reason for the North to provide the considerable resources it did to Pol Pot.

So the US support for South Vietnam played a large, probably determining, role in Pol Pot’s success and therefore the deaths of millions of Cambodians. The notion that we could continue indefinitely in Vietnam was a fantasy. Rand experts who had dealt with prisoner interrogation material from World War II, Korea, and Eastern Europe had never seen interviews like the ones of VC, and concluded that unlike other opponents, they could not be coerced. Conversely, not only was the American public at large tired of the war, but more important, the armed forces had come to recognize the futility of the exercise.

Pol Pot’s purges started in the countryside in 1973, when he took his army that had supported the Vietnamese effort and turned them to setting up cooperatives in the countryside by force. The Khmer Rouge seized control of the Cambodian government in April 1975, Vietnam deposed Pol Pot in December 1978. Can we honestly say the US would have done the job faster, or even taken it on?

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  1. Anonymous

    You should stick to markets where your analysis is excellent. These types of political, Bush bashing, excerpts are not worthy of this blog.

  2. Anonymous

    Bush says Iraq = Vietnam, and that means we should stay. That’s absurd.

    The only reason that might not be worthy of this blog is that’s more obvious, say, than “We are having a Minsky moment” (or not)…..

  3. Clayton


    I agree with anonymous. The ability to select the weakest points in an argument, let alone the weakest points in a piece of evidence for an argument, hardly reflects the skill that you apply to other arguments.

    *Even if* you’re right about Vietnam, and I have no evidence to the contrary, Bush’s use of the historic record is really only meaningful as a graphic representation of the possible outcomes and carries no legitimate weight as a logical argument. Iraq is a different time, place, and situation, and we should not expect the outcome to be the same.

    Bush’s fallacious (though politically expedient) arguments aside, nowhere in your response do you present evidence for the superiority of a policy of complete or partial withdrawal (as is implied by attacking his reasons for staying).

    This is the same logical fallacy that is used to argue against the war. Whether or not Iraq had WMD (and for the sake of argument, I’m willing to assume that they did not), the agument to *not* go to war must be built on an accounting of how the world would be better without the war.

    Obviously, we know the costs of one scenario in the going to war portfolio… lives, money, international political repercussions. This outcome had some probability if we went to war. For completeness, we have to figure out the probability and cost of other scenarios (lower and higher costs of the “go to war” choice).

    … But more importantly, we have quantify the consequences of not going to war.

    If you actually review the evidence (as in this case I have), the “no war” scenario is not entirely without risk and cost. First, it is extremely probable that “no war” would have led to the removal of sanctions via bribery around the oil for food scandal and the granting of favorable contracts to French and Russian oil companies *contingent* on the elimination of sanctions. Even if you discount the immediate risk, eventually this would have happened because our presence was increasingly exacerbating regional tensions and inciting terrorism through the “infidels in the holy land” thing.

    Once the sanctions had been lifted (high probability, variable timefram), Saddam would have restarted his (herein assumed inactive) weapons programs as was clearly indicated by the Duelfer report. There seems little to no debate that he had the scientists and capability, just not the weapons themselves.

    And in the “no war” scenario, we face the prospects of another Kim Jung-Il developing WMD in the middle east and empowering the Iranian government by offering the government an excuse to be a rallying point against the “hated Iraqis” (I have a very good friend who escaped Iran on foot when the Mullahs took over so I’ve come to understand that country’s conditions quite well). No matter what probability you put on this outcome, this is not a costless scenario.

    Following this logic out, the prospects of facing a second Persian Gulf with a WMD’d and potentially Nuclear capable Saddam (or son Hussein) are frightening. But in the greater analysis, it is a legitimate scenario that must be calculated into the accounting of the “no war” scenario.

    In real world decisions, “no action” has consequences and it’s not simply the negative of the “act”. I challenge anti-war people to elevate the debate by offering these perspectives rather than attacking actions proposed by those with whom they disagree.

  4. miguel

    I would respectfully disagree with the commenters who criticize the post.

    I know that many econ-centric bloggers get whacked for straying into politics, but I think this one is justified.

    This administration has a growing need — even a desperation — to keep the Iraq war going, even as it edges toward war with Iran. To make the Iraq case, their arguments have gone from bluster (‘Bring ’em on’) to using the humiliation of Vietnam like the Weimar-era charge that the liberals stabbed our soldiers in the back.

    Now, I suppose you could still think the US must stay in Iraq, but you should acknowledge that Bush’s comparison to Nam was fallacious. I happen to think it’s worse than that — a dangerous distortion of the past. Rove may be leaving the White House, but this is his theme — there is no honest criticism, just treason. I can understand why Yves would want to respond to that.

    Just my $.02….

  5. Yves Smith


    Did you read what I wrote?

    …. the spectacle of the President of this country uttering patent nonsense to justify our continued occupation of Iraq is more than I can bear to watch. So forgive me for venting a bit.

    The balance of this post is entirely about Vietnam and Cambodia.

    I take offense that Bush implies that there is a Pol Pot like actor waiting in the wings if we withdraw. This is such a strained and spurious argument that it demands comment.

    You say I am using this to argue we should withdraw. No such argument was presented. This is your projection.

    How hard is it to understand that I am offended by the Bush administration’s need to distort reality to try to rally public support? You cannot have meaningful public discourse unless it has some anchor in reality.

    Now if there were a factual argument to be made in support of their policies, such as the one you advanced, that would be a different matter. Then we could have a real debate. But the Bush administration has made and dropped various rationales for its course of action in Iraq, and now appears to be veering from slogan to slogan. That is destructive to a democratic process.

  6. Anonymous

    Clayton’s comment is a classic of what’s meant — pejoratively — as ‘academic’.

    Somehow, the comment wants to strike a ‘higher ground’ by going back and arguing theoretically about probabilities and risks in the status quo ante. It’s really tiresome; not the least because neither Bush nor any human being who supports Bushism would ever engage in such a conversation before the fact. They only do so after the fact and then only to confuse instead of enlighten.

    Clayton’s ‘no war’ scenarios are utter horse shit theoretical constructs with no validity to them at all. None. Time to end of sanctions? “Long”. Time from end of sanctions to when Sadaam reinvigorated some WMD program? Also, “long”. Time to fruition of such a program, including having delivery strike capability. “Very long”. Discounted ‘value’ of these risks? Zero.

    And, how convenient of Clayton to leave out entirely the UN inspection program… which, if I recall, was costing in the tens of millions at most and was surely keeping Sadaam out of the WMD business. Now, let’s see: ‘no war’ and 20 to 100 million a year continued in an inspection program that was working versus ‘war’ at more than a trillion dollars that doesn’t work…… go ahead Clayton, you choose where you want to invest…..

  7. Anonymous

    It’s funny to see that when someone makes a political comment in an economic blog, some people gets very embarrassed.

    Politics and economic facts go together always.

    Let’s hope that USA stops exporting debt and war, soon.

    Iraq oil will be expensive for the whole world: hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, two trillion of $ expense (Stiglitz estimated two years ago), and someone still says that “Sadam would have…”

    The only answer it deserves is that terrorists got melted into the ordinary population, like USA’s CDOs and SiV in the financial world, but they are a lot and nobody knows where they are.

    Thanks for your great blog Yves!

  8. john c. halasz

    Er, yeah. Nixon began bombing in Cambodia in 1969 and the Lon Nol coup was CIA sponsored. And then there was the “incursion” into Cambodia, of late Kent State fame, in pursuit of a mythical NVA HQ, which completely mistook the way that the NVA operated, or, for that matter, the way of the VC in the Mekong delta. Subsequently, the oft predicted NVA “bloodbath” largely failed to occur, while the NVA invasion of Cambodia at least put a partial stop to the Khmer Rouge holocaust, while the U.S. government aligned itself with the Chinese position supporting the Khmer Rouge. And all this is cited by Bush to support what position?

  9. Anonymous

    history tells a simple story. kings raised taxes to go to war. the current resident lowered taxes and went to war. that’s financially dyslexic. kings also tended to debase the currency in time of war. the iraq war has to be paid for some way, but the oil did not flow and the currency trick does not work properly while the chinese and people are virtually pegged to debasement.

    the iraq occupation is threatening eventually to exceed the second world war in its cost. the intended objective is to prevent any medium sized country in the middle east becoming a regional power through a combination of energy reserves and strategic position. so chaos and poverty in iraq is a victory of sorts – unless the contagion of chaos and poverty, like mortgage backed securities, starts to pop up in unexpected places. then you have an unintended result.

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