The Bush administration's decision to withdraw diplomatic its recognition of a Cambodian guerrilla coalition is being hailed by some Southeast Asian specialists as offering new hope that a settlement to the civil war in Cambodia can be reached. But other specialists say the U.S. policy shift may be "too little, too late" to prevent a victory by the Communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

Unless a political settlement is reached in Cambodia soon, some analysts and congressmen contend that the Khmer Rouge will be able to push their way back into Phnom Penh or take control of the populous countryside, as much by their shrewd use of psychological warfare as by their military prowess.

In fact, some critics say that without more substantive U.S. moves to help curb the Khmer Rouge on the ground, last week's policy change could backfire and wind up fueling the position of the radical, Chinese-supported guerrilla group, which was responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million people when it ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

"I think the most important thing is that we have said that we are going to isolate the Khmer Rouge diplomatically, but we haven't isolated them militarily," said Rep. Chester Atkins (D-Mass.), who has been a leader in the House on Cambodian policy. "It's a policy that I think set out to be bold and reverse direction in Cambodia, but . . . it became a policy that is largely symbolic and in many respects may aggravate the situation on the ground rather than ameliorate it."

The Khmer Rouge, who have the strongest army in the tripartite rebel coalition, are believed to have made military gains inside Cambodia this year as they battle the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Although it is not clear how extensive the gains are, many analysts agree that Hun Sen's government has been put on the defensive.

The government was installed by Vietnam in 1979 after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge, who during their 3 1/2-year rule effectively turned Cambodia into a giant labor camp in a brutal attempt to convert the country into a Communist agrarian society.

After losing power, the Khmer Rouge, backed by China, joined forces with two non-Communist rebel groups, one headed by the former Cambodian ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and the other by former prime minister Son Sann. The alliance, with U.S. support, won United Nations recognition as Cambodia's legitimate government.

For years the United States decried the role of the Khmer Rouge in the alliance and hoped to blunt their influence by covertly funding the so-called "non-communist resistance." The overriding concern of U.S. policy planners was not actually the Khmer Rouge, but containment of Vietnam. Strong anti-Vietnamese sentiment in the U.S. government lingered from the 1970s when U.S. forces pulled out of the Vietnam War and North Vietnamese Communists defeated the American-backed regime in Saigon.

The non-Communist Cambodian guerrilla forces also criticized the Khmer Rouge, but remained in the alliance and have increasingly cooperated with the Khmer Rouge on the battlefield, leading to charges that the United States was at least indirectly aiding a group with a murderous record.

Congressional support for the U.S. policy began to wane after the Vietnamese withdrew their troops from Cambodia last September, and fears began to rise that the Khmer Rouge were in a position to challenge Hun Sen's government. Secretary of State James A. Baker III announced last week that the United States was dropping its recognition of the alliance and opening a dialogue with Vietnam -- although not with Hun Sen's Communist government -- in an attempt to "create the conditions that would permit the election of a free government in Cambodia."

U.S. officials said that the non-Communist guerrilla forces still deserve to be supported, but that the United States should no longer be in a position in which it appears to back the Khmer Rouge. The administration has asked Congress for $7 million in overt aid to the non-Communist rebels but it is not clear whether it will get it, and a Senate committee has voted to cut covert aid to Sihanouk and Son Sann.

Some analysts, including David Hawke of the Cambodian Documentation Commission, which is attempting to document Khmer Rouge atrocities and bring the group's leaders to justice, praised Baker's announcement as providing some "breathing room" for the various parties in the conflict.

But other analysts said the policy change may not have gone far enough to make a real difference in Cambodia. They argued that the refusal to talk with the Hun Sen government may play into the Khmer Rouge's hands.

The Baker announcement "only strengthens further the political message of the Khmer Rouge," said Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). "They have been organizing around a fierce nationalist, anti-Vietnamese, anti-corruption message. The Cambodian people have intense negative feelings about the Vietnamese. Our 'collaboration' with the Vietnamese will become a battle cry for the committed Khmer Rouge."

According to Lionel Rosenblatt, executive director of Refugees International, the new U.S. policy will have a positive effect only if Washington immediately opens the dialogue with Vietnam. The State Department has not yet said when talks would begin.

"It takes time to translate policy into action on the ground," Rosenblatt said. "It is dicey and difficult and complicated, and the problem is that only now is the United States addressing a military and political strategy that makes a true priority out of limiting their {the Khmer Rouge's} influence and control."

China's reaction to the U.S. policy change also will be vital, Rosenblatt said. Beijing's immediate response to Baker's announcement was a vow to continue supporting and supplying the Khmer Rouge.

Most analysts say the extent of Khmer Rouge gains in Cambodia is unclear. While U.S. intelligence estimates indicate there are about 35,000 to 40,000 Khmer Rouge rebels under arms, it is not known how many are committed to the cause or there by coercion.

It appears that in the current rainy season -- which normally is conducive to the kind of warfare pursued by the guerrillas -- the Khmer Rouge have extended their hold inside Cambodia. Fighting has been reported in provinces near Phnom Penh, causing an exodus of refugees into the city.

But it is the propaganda and political abilities of the Khmer Rouge as much as the group's military skills that concern many Cambodia-watchers. The propaganda put out by the guerrilla radio has convinced many war-weary Cambodians that the Khmer Rouge are omnipresent and inevitably will regain power, making resistance useless and dangerous.

Some analysts said simple fear of the Khmer Rouge could lead many Cambodian soldiers -- who have been fighting on their own for less than a year -- to simply throw down their arms and accept what they think they cannot stop. "If the people think the war is over, it's over, even without a real military victory," said one congressional aide who is an expert on Cambodia.

Khmer Rouge propaganda is indeed powerful, and experts say the group has over many years become astute at political organizing. According to some analysts, the group has curbed some of its more brutal tactics in the countryside and, in an attempt to gain support among the population, is feeding people and helping them farm and build huts.

For this reason, Atkins said, it is vital that the United States get the message into Cambodia now that Washington will not accept a Khmer Rouge return to power and will not abandon the Cambodian people. "The Cambodians who survived the killing fields know acutely that, in 1975, the world forgot them . . . . and they are afraid it will happen again."