America to Cut UXO Aid to Cambodia: an explosive legacy forgotten

Reports from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) suggest that the US government will cut its $2.5m a year funding to help rid the Southeast Asian country of the scourge of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).

A Mines Advisory Group worker lays out his daily find in Cambodia

It is estimated that the US dropped more than 2 million bombs on Cambodia between 1963 and 1975, largely as part of efforts to flush out Vietcong insurgents and destroy both their training camps and logistical supply corridors.

The Richard Nixon administration intensified what had been a more subtle bombing campaign in 1969 when ‘Operation Menu’ was launched. This began the process of B-52 aircraft carpet bombing vast swathes of eastern Cambodia in a bid to wipe out Vietcong bases. It was followed by ‘Operation Freedom Deal’, which had an expanded remit focused on halting the advance of the Khmer Rouge communist rebels.

Simultaneously, the Americans carried out a strategic air warfare campaign in neighbouring Laos, which also faced its own communist insurgency in what became a bloody civil war. The (il)legality of this bombing rampage caused controversy at the time in America, although its scale was largely covered up until Bill Clinton released classified documents relating to it in 2000.

It is difficult to know how many civilian casualties were caused by America’s bombing of Indochina at the time. What is certain, is that the legacy of UXO in the region (much of it American) provides a constant menace to the civilian population.

A victim of the UXO legacy in Laos

Coupled with an horrendous land mine problem – remnants of the civil wars fought throughout the region – large tracts of land remain contaminated. That these are generally poor countries whose people require access to farmland only exacerbates the problem, and increases the risk of deaths.

As the rap rockers The Transplants succinctly put it:

Well, drop more, two million tons,
Ho Chi Minh’s trail was sprayed with bombs,
Jungles of Laos, knew all along,
That the American war would finally come,
America, land of the free,
Purveyour and leaders of democracy,
Debauchery, luxury,
Bacchanalia’s alright to be.

This is a rare reference in popular culture.

Whilst this particular stain on America’s recent history hasn’t been completely forgotten at home, it is, understandably, overshadowed by the more personal tragedy of the Vietnam War. As such, the funding and expertise offered by the US government to help mitigate the risk of UXO in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is not only a rightful penance but also helps retain a vestige of memory amongst those Americans involved in the clean-up effort.

The number of UXO-related incidents across Cambodia remains staggering

Strong support from NGOs and UN-funded organisations will continue to play a crucial role in freeing up hectares of fertile land from the explosive remnants of war. But the withdrawal of US funding in Cambodia is as much a symbolic defeat as it is an economic one.

UXO is not an issue that has been resolved; rather it is being gradually resolved in a country whose suffering extended long after the US intervention, as the dystopian vision of the Khmer Rouge resulted in genocide.

Cluster munitions, chemical weapons, herbicidal agents; all of these continue to blight a landscape increasingly admired by adventurous tourists of the West. Along with land mines and air-dropped bombs they have combined to create a toxic burden that will be forcibly carried by generations for decades to come.

The Agent Orange defoliant – designed to remove tree cover and reveal the Vietcong but also a vicious herbicide – is sprayed during the Vietnam War

Most worryingly, this is just one small part of the Donald Trump administration’s foreign aid cut, and the implications could be massive. It begs the question of what is next. Why should the American government turn its back on the catastrophes it helped conceive, and condemn to struggle those born into less fortuitous circumstances than its own members?

Hardly befitting of the land of the free, nor the purveyor and leaders of democracy.

Obama Lifts Arms Embargo on Vietnam: setting aside history to look towards the future

It has been announced, rather unsurprisingly it must be said, that the USA is to fully lift an historic arms embargo on Vietnam.  Speaking in Hanoi, President Obama declared that America could once more sell lethal weapons to the Vietnamese, in the process removing a ‘lingering vestige of the Cold War’.

President Obama with Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong Source: CNN
President Obama with Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong
Source: CNN

More than 58,000 US soldiers died during the Vietnam War and yet their sacrifice did not prevent a communist takeover of the southern part of the country. It is the descendants of Ho Chi Minh and his comrades that continue to rule Vietnam in a decidedly authoritarian manner, a confirmation of one of the greatest failures of American interventionism.

Obama’s decision is likely to provoke complaints from Vietnam war veterans, just as his slated visit to Hiroshima has drawn the ire of survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The Vietnam War continues to exercise a powerful hold over the American soul, a psychological wound that, despite its longevity, is unlikely to be mirrored by the War in Afghanistan.

The humiliating failure of the Vietnam War - and the lives it cost - have helped ingrain it in the minds of successive generations of Americans Source: CNN
The humiliating failure of the Vietnam War – and the lives it cost – have helped ingrain it in the minds of successive generations of Americans
Source: CNN

The timing of the decision is understandable. China continues to act with increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, threatening American geostrategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region. As another claimant in the complex territorial dispute that dominates this part of the world, Vietnam could act as a contributory balancing partner for Washington should events turn sour.

There is also the added factor of Russia, once more a serious global rival to the USA. As a result of the Soviet legacy, Moscow is still the chief supplier of arms to Vietnam. The Americans can disrupt, if not entirely supplant, this profitable flow of capital into the Kremlin’s vaults.

Many of President Obama’s critics, and even some of his supporters, have found serious fault with his foreign policy. In particular, his apparent desire to appease all of America’s enemies, both past and present, has not always been well received. Perhaps he does not fully appreciate the significance of American history and its ramifications for generations of its citizens? Or so the argument goes.

Obama's desperation to push through a nuclear deal with Iran - despite the legacy of the Iranian Revolution and the Tehran hostage crisis, not to mention the Islamic Republic's constant America-bashing - infuriated millions
Obama’s desperation to push through a nuclear deal with Iran – despite the legacy of the Iranian Revolution and the Tehran hostage crisis, not to mention the Islamic Republic’s constant America-bashing – infuriated millions

This blog has frequently argued that history should not be an impediment to the future, though unfortunately it often is. Obama is certainly acting opportunistically by removing the arms embargo to Vietnam now but his principals – i.e. burying old enmities and looking forward – must be applauded.  Vietnam was a deeply contentious and, ultimately, unpopular war, but to allow its haunting memory to obstruct a crucial bilateral relationship is to do a disservice to those who fought for a cause – however flawed – that sought peace.

More questionable is the current Vietnamese government’s human rights record, which is quite frankly appalling. The White House has stated that any arms deal between Washington and Hanoi will be dependent upon the latter’s improved respect for human rights but such sentiments have not stopped US manufacturers from selling weapons to other violators of these norms (Saudi Arabia for instance).

Saudi Arabia remains a major purchaser of American arms despite a dreadful human rights record
Saudi Arabia remains a major purchaser of American arms despite a dreadful human rights record

If President Obama has acted with indecision when confronted by several treacherous foreign policy challenges during his tenure in office (his red line with regards to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria being a particular case in point), he will be remembered for his efforts to try and improve relations between Washington and states with which it has been left a bitter legacy.

By combining this consistent philosophy with geostrategic calculations – such as hedging against a more militaristic China – Obama is leaving his successor with a less dispiriting outlook when confronting the foreign policy objectives of the near future.