WHY DOES THE United States support Pol Pot?"

The question came from a young Cambodian intellectual. The setting was a restuarant in Phnom Penh a few months ago and the man could barely control his anger.

I tried a measured response, "I deplore American policy towards Pol Pot but you can't say the U.S. supports him. The U.S. only votes for the Khmer Rouge government at the United Nations . . . and the U.S. doesn't give Pol Pot arms, China does . . ."

"That is supporting Pol Pot -- can't you see?" he interrupted. "That is taking Pol Pot's side against the people of Kampuches."

What other conclusion could he or any other Cambodian reach after watching American policy these past five years? The United States has allowed Pol Pot, a mass murderer, to retain a major voice in their country's destiny. The United States forced its one natural Cambodian ally, the noncommunist resistance leader Son Sann, into an ignomonius coalition with Pol Pot and won't give Son Sann a penny of direct aid. The United States has refused to give humanitarian aid inside Cambodia and is blocking private charities from doing so.

Many Cambodians cannot sleep at night knowing Pol Pot is still alive in their country, leading an army of 30,000 soldiers. To them, U.S. policy seems the work of the devil.

But it is the work of Americans still beguiled by an old idea that once marched under the banner of "Vietnamization." That's how Richard Nixon described a policy of using Asians to fight Asians inpursuit of American objectives. That's what the United States is trying to do now in Cambodia. Today we encourage armed opposition to the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia to make this occupation expensive and embarassing for the Vietnamese. Ultimately, Vietnam is supposed to bend under this pressure, withdraw its troops and allow Cambodia to become neutral. It is a preposterous scenario that will cost Cambodians dearly.

This sounds familiar. Ten years ago a U.S. ambassador wound up his tour in Cambodia at the height of the war with a bitter press conference. He said the United States was indebted to the thousands of Cambodian soldiers who sacrificed their lives so that U.S. soldiers could be withdrawn safely from Vietnam. Two years later the war ended; America's "friends" in Cambodia felt betrayed, its enemies won and the people of Cambodia suffered immeasureably.

Today the administration talks openly of its limited, "realistic" goals in Cambodia. Washington does not expect the Cambodian resistance to defeat Vietnam, only to harass them so they cannot threaten Thailand or any of the other countries in the region once known as dominoes. Once again, Cambodians are being asked to fight and die -- but not to win -- to protect the security of the region.

American policy has pushed Son Samm and Prince Norodom Sihanouk into an alliance with Pol Pot that forbids them to even criticize the Khmer Rouge. Both suffer in the eyes of ordinary Cambodians by lending their names to the murderous Khmer Rouge -- who are the true benefactors of the coalition.

The flag of the atrocious Khmer Rouge regime still flies over the United Nations.Khmer Rouge diplomats still stand in international bodies as the representatives of the Cambodian people.

Unfortunately, as one's sympathetically acknowledged, the United States has to "live with the fact that the coalition with Pol Pot can be used as a propaganda ploy by the Vietnamese."

Pol Pot is hardly considered a "ploy" inside Cambodia. One wishes these diplomats could spend a few days in the eerie world of Phnom Penh where the fear of Pol Pot's return lends the Vietnamese soldiers the coloration of protectors, not just occupiers. And the Vietnamese deftly justify their oppressive occupation by pointing to the menace of Pol Pot.

"But no country will ever allow Pol Pot to return," a diplomat counters.

Such sanguine assurances wear thin by the time they reach Cambodia. What good were U.S. assurances in the last war against Pol Pot? Finally, Cambodians are enraged that the United States is leading a campaign to reduce humanitarian assistance to Phnom Penh. The United States claims and no only strengthens the Vietnamese occupiers. Vietnam should foot the bill, not the West. There are promises, though, that once the Vietnamese influence in Cambodia is reduced, aid will flow like water to Phnom Penh. But Cambodians do not have the luxury to wait for that day. The country has not recovered from the past 13 years of war and revolution. Few countries have suffered so much and received so little help. Thousands of children are dying of malnutrition; roads, water and power facilites, dams and irrigation systems are decaying; the country is facing a new cycle of poverty. How can a dispirited, impoverished population assert itself in the face of an occupying force of 150,000 Vietnamese troops?The American aid embargo is helping to bury Khmer nationalism.