Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lessons of history

Bret Stephens writes in today's Wall Street Journal on the intensifying debate over when and if the U.S. should get out of Afghanistan. The voices urging immediate withdrawal have gotten louder since the release of thousands of classified documents by something called WikiLeaks. The docs don't paint a pretty picture of U.S. involvement, but why is that a surprise? Unleashing the dogs of war is always fraught with peril and unintended consequences. Even the good guys don't escape the taint of moral compromise.

However, Stephens uses the example of Southeast Asia to argue that there are times when the only thing worse than a messy war is "peace"...

The Cambodian genocide is especially worth recalling today not only for what it was, but for the public debates in the West that immediately preceded it. "The greatest gift our country can give to the Cambodian people is peace, not guns," said then-congressman, now senator, Chris Dodd, by way of making the case against the Ford administration's bid to extend military assistance to the pro-American government of Lon Nol.

In the New York Times, Sydney Schanberg reported from Cambodia that "it is difficult to imagine how [Cambodian] lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone." Mr. Schanberg added that "it would be tendentious to forecast [genocide] as a national policy under a Communist government once the war is over."

A year later, Mr. Schanberg was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, though not for tendentiousness.

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.

The possibility that something like that could happen in Afghanistan once the American soldiers leave should at least give us pause. Stephens concludes: "It is a peculiar fact of modern liberalism that its best principles have most often been betrayed by self-described liberals." What was that about being doomed to repeat history?

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