Finally, Hope in Southeast Asia

AT WORST, the State Department under James A. Baker has been criticized as a schizophrenic nightmare. At best, critics say it suffers from a lack of clearly articulated goals.

Indeed, in the present case of Iraq, this confusion has led to a major blunder. The State Department refused to condemn Saddam Hussein time and again, possibly giving Saddam the impression that the U.S. would not move to stop an invasion of Kuwait.

The post-cold war world makes many nostalgic for the days when the goal of foreign policy was easy to delineate--stop the Soviets. But the rigidity of containment and its variants dictated U.S. involvement in Vietnam and in El Salvador and guaranteed a U.S.-Soviet arms race. A new case-by-case policy is exactly what the State Department needs.

With decisions no longer driven by opposition to communism, America can increase human rights consideration in foreign policy. And the State Department has taken this opportunity in Southeast Asia, where the U.S. is finally moving toward peace with the Vietnamese, 45 years after its initial involvement there.

LAST summer, Baker moved to normalize relations with the Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen. For years the U.S. had used the illogic now so characteristic of the Middle East--that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"--to justify its refusal to recognize the Hanoi- and Moscow-backed Hun Sen regime. Instead the U.S. cynically supported an opposition coalition which included the Khmer Rouge.

Fifteen years ago, this peasant-based, uneducated Maoist group committed some of the worst human rights atrocities in recent (and long-term) history. Led by the radical Pol Pot, they overran the capital, Phnom Penh, in 1975 and proceeded to slaughter one in seven of their fellow citizens. Most city dwellers were herded into concentration camp-like "reeducation" communes in the countryside, better known as the killing fields.

The Vietnamese, frightened by Khmer Rouge extremism and angered by Khmer attacks on Vietnamese villages, invaded in 1979 and installed the Hun Sen government, driving the Khmer Rouge back into rural provinces.

In a shocking display of hypocrisy, the human-rights conscious Carter Administration recognized the Khmer Rouge's United Nations seat. The Reagan Administration (less surprisingly) continued this policy, and, beginning in 1982, gave economic aid to a tripartite coalition including the Khmer Rouge despite the fact that they dominated the group.

By this time, Reagan feared political attacks from the right and from Vietnam War veterans who felt that recognizing the Hun Sen regime would be tantamount to accepting the Vietnamese government as legitimate.

LAST July, the State Department shunted these concerns aside. Moving into the post-Cold War era, America dropped its support for the opposition. Baker, citing fears that a victory by the Khmer Rouge-dominated coalition was imminent, said he would begin talks with the Hun Sen government. It was a break with American policy, but a break for the better.

Unfortunately, stalling by officials at the State Department two weeks ago has cast doubt on the administration's willingness to follow through. Thus Congress, during its final session, went one step further and voted to provide Prime Minister Hun Sen with aid. The Bush Administration should comply quickly and drop all links with the Khmer Rouge.

The Hun Sen regime, while not perfect, has been good for the Cambodian people. Amnesty International reported this year that a new constitution has abolished the death penalty, instituted due process by trial and increased safeguards against torture. Economic reforms have also helped.

This new policy toward Southeast Asia will have important effects on the U.S. In recognizing the Hun Sen government, Baker said the U.S. would initiate further talks with the Vietnamese. Perhaps these talks can finally end the POW-MIA confusion which has caused so much pain for so many Americans whose relatives and friends never returned.

But the larger consequence of the new policy for the United States is that it signals the end of decades of misguided hatred toward the Vietnamese. American policymakers never fought North Vietnam and Vietcong; for muddled officials caught up in the hysteria that was the Cold War, these were just a proxy for the real enemy--the Soviet Union.

NOW, in the quickly fading heat of the Cold War, we see its repercussions for the nations where it was fought. Vietnam's standard of living makes the Soviet Union look like a vacation spot. In Cambodia, a lingering war led by the Khmer Rouge still costs the lives of thousands each year.

The same international environment that has given the State Department headaches in the Middle East offers hope in Southeast Asia. With the Cold War over, the challenge is to preserve the deterrence of a bipolar world with the flexibility to achieve human rights progress.