The Obama Drones/Cambodia Analogy: Ur Doing It Right?


Obama’s Nixonian Precedent – New York Times

Drones invade our dreams in 2013, our blogs, and the sputtering discourse on television and on airwaves. Now the pundits have rediscovered the Cambodian carpet bombing nastiness of the Vietnam War era, and are making analogies left and right comparing small-scale drone strikes to the constant onslaught of metal and fire that rained down upon Cambodia. As a Cambodia specialist, I have issues with this — but this is for later.

I address today Mary L Dudziak’s New York Times editorial which takes a somewhat different approach to the Drones And Cambodia discussion: secrecy and that it is Bad News. Much to my surprise, I feel Dudziak managed to use the oft-abused Cambodia–drone strikes analogy without utterly manhandling it.

Most interesting to me about this little column is Dudziak’s assertion that the now-infamous “white paper” on drone use referred to a 1970 statement by John R. Stevenson claiming that “except for scattered instances of returning fire across the border, we [the US] refrained until April from taking such action in Cambodia.”

Now, this is patently false, as Dudziak notes: Nixon had in fact started the sweeping and murderous Operation Breakfast bombings more than a year earlier, operating in a sort of total secrecy that managed to confound observers both inside and outside the government for years.

Here’s what I like about this piece: although Dudziak makes the standard admission that the US carpet bombing of Cambodia was a major factor in the fall of Sihanouk and the rise of the Khmer Rouge — a point that is somewhat contested in research circles — she also admits that making an analogy between the mass destruction that was the Cambodian bombing campaign and the small-scale drone strikes that are our current reality is perhaps not the best idea.

To wit: “The Cambodia bombing, far from providing a valuable precedent for today’s counterterrorism campaign, illustrates the trouble with secrecy: It doesn’t work.”

Exactly. Good arguments against the Obama drone campaigns that use the Cambodian analogy focus on their secrecy and extrajudicial nature.

Bad arguments, on the other hand? They attempt to conflate the political situation of mid-century Cambodia with 2013 Pakistan, making dire warnings that drone strikes will set off some sort of Khmer Rouge like domino effect among the pissed-off-children of drone victims.

And that argument, if you ask me, displays both a remarkable lack of knowledge of the history of the Indochina war and is, well…downright preposterous. But more on that front later.


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