Riffing off of the WikiLeaks story, Bret Stephens is mystified by liberal calls for withdrawal from Afghanistan. For a group of people who "protest every drone strike as a violation of the laws of war, or trumpet every inflated claim of Taliban civilian casualties," he comments, they seem blind to the "human consequences of American withdrawal." To Stephens, liberals ought to see more good in occupying an unstable, war-torn nation, as the likely alternative is chaos. Indeed, to make this point even more explicit, he looks to Vietnam and Cambodia, which in his telling, suffered hellish violence following American withdrawal in the 1970s:
All in all, America's withdrawal from Southeast Asia resulted in the killing of an estimated 165,000 South Vietnamese in so-called re-education camps; the mass exodus of one million boat people, a quarter of whom died at sea; the mass murder, estimated at 100,000, of Laos's Hmong people; and the killing of somewhere between one million and two million Cambodians. […]
What happens to the Afghan women who removed their burqas in the late fall of 2001, or the girls who enrolled in government schools? What happens to the army officers and civil servants who cooperated with the coalition? What happens to the villagers who stood with us when we asked them to?
I see Stephens' point, but his history could use some work.
As an insurgent movement, the Khmer Rouge was popular among Cambodian peasants, but unable to topple the existing government. Relentless American bombing solved that problem by devastating the rural population, and providing the Khmer Rouge with excellent opportunities for recruitment; partisans of the insurgency used damage done by U.S. airstrikes to recruit tens of thousands of angry and disaffected peasants. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge had swollen to more than 200,000 regular and militia forces, and by 1975, this guerilla army had taken the capital of Phnom Penh.
Contra Stephens, the Khmer Rouge owes its "success" to American bombing and official disregard for what historian Ben Kiernan calls the "immorality and miscalculation of the consequences of inflicting predictable civilian casualties." The senseless killing of President Nixon's "secret war" in Cambodia radicalized the population, providing the Khmer Rouge with countless willing recruits. Indeed, the liberals of Stephens' column are right to protest drone strikes and civilian casualties; these are the things that provide the space for extremist groups to flourish.
Stephens ends his column by declaring that the "best principles" of modern liberalism have "most often been betrayed by self-described liberals." For my part, I'd like to think that liberals are well-served by their healthy skepticism for war. Moreover, far from emphasizing the need for liberals to think more about the consequences of withdrawal, Stephens' historical analogy illustrates the opposing view; its advocates for the war who should think long and hard about the unintended consequences of the interventions they champion.
-- Jamelle Bouie
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