The "new" policy on Cambodia at first sounded like a declaration that the Vietnam War is at last over. But at the Senate hearing where administration officials explained what they preferred to call "a timely revision," it sounded a lot like old times.
Richard H. Solomon, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, immediately launched into a call for bipartisan support for a policy he heard about just hours before the rest of us did. He reminded older listeners of those incessant calls for unity that came from Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon as the goals changed with the rainy season in the Delta.
Solomon was followed to the stand by Assistant Secretary John R. Bolton, of State's Bureau of International Organization Affairs, talking about upgrading roads and telecommunications for a U.N. operation. It took you back to 1969, when Nixon was telling of progress in terms of construction: "The Marines alone this year have built over 250,000 churches, pagodas and temples for the people of Vietnam."
Talk of consensus and infrastructure, while familiar, fails to reassure when the subject is Indochina. Two years into the Bush administration and Cambodia seems about to fall to the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal thugs we have inadvertently been helping by our contributions to the so-called noncommunist resistance.
The capacity for self-delusion extends from idiotic and ruinous policies to the views of top officials who figured in the tragedy. Just the other day, in what was perhaps an appropriate distortion, at the dedication of the Nixon library, President Bush promised that Nixon would be remembered "for dedicating his life to the greatest cause offered any president -- the cause of peace among nations."
This for the commander in chief who not only failed to end the war in Vietnam during his term but who also ordered the dropping of more bombs on that one small country than were used in all of World War II.
The same denial is in effect on Cambodia, under the "new" policy as well as the old. The resentment over the outcome is expressed, once again, by a refusal to talk to Hun Sen, the president put in place by the Vietnamese, to whom we will talk instead. The embargo against both countries remains in place. The Vietnamese must continue to pay for defeating us. Cambodia, too.
"That's not a policy," said a British diplomat. "That's a hang-up."
Although the folly of our approach was resulting in increased successes by the Khmer Rouge, the president might have muddled on had it not been for three developments.
In April, ABC-TV's Peter Jennings did a documentary, which showed the cruelty and folly and deception of our policy.
In June, the Senate intelligence committee, which is chaired by that model of conformity, Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), astonishingly voted in secret session to end covert aid to the resistance. It is said that members were alarmed by reports from the CIA that the U.S. law that forbids any direct or indirect aid to the Khmer Rouge was being copiously violated.
Thirdly, the administration found itself with a revolution of cautious men on its hands. It was led by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), who at the prodding of his old friend and mentor Edmund Muskie wrote a "Dear Colleague" letter urging direct talks with Cambodia, and easing of the severe embargo.
The former secretary of state, who as chairman of the Center for National Policy took a trip to Cambodia last year and came back a believer in the Hun Sen government, took the "new" policy apart in succinct and sometimes biting phrases. Much given to caution when he was in office, Muskie gives former colleagues splendid cover.
The only encouragement the administration has received lately was from the other body, which tends to take its direction from Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), who likes to be thought of as "Mr. Cambodia."
His curious fidelity to a ruinous course is said to result from an unpleasant meeting with Hun Sen in Phnom Penh. Hun Sen did not understand that Solarz is "Mr. Cambodia." When the administration made what he called "adjustments" in its course, Solarz leaped to welcome them and predicted a solidification of resistance support -- even as it crumbled before his eyes.
Now that the adjustments and the revisions have been made, the question is if the revolution of cautious men in the Senate will demand real changes in our Cambodian policy. They will have to start with a declaration that the Vietnam War is finally over.