- The Cambodian Wars: Clashing Armies and CIA Covert Operations by Kenneth Conboy
Scholarly interest in the conflict in Cambodia has always lagged considerably behind interest in the Vietnam conflict. In his new book, Kenneth Conboy begins to rectify that imbalance by providing a comprehensive account of the conflict in Cambodia from the 1960s to the complete withdrawal of Vietnamese troops and the completion of the United Nations (UN)-sponsored election process in the 1990s. What makes the book particularly valuable is the author’s revealing interviews with many of the central players of the non-Communist opposition and their foreign patrons. The Cambodian Wars is likely to be the most important book on the non-Communist resistance of the 1980s for a long time to come.
However, for those expecting a thrilling and controversial exposé of nefarious U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) activities in Cambodia, The Cambodian Wars may seem a little disappointing. This is not the fault of Kenneth Conboy but of the reality of the situation. The CIA’s role in Cambodia, as Conboy repeatedly demonstrates, was never as extensive as it was in Vietnam, Chile, Cuba, and many others countries during and after the Cold War. The deterioration of U.S-Cambodian relations in the 1960s, which ultimately led to the end of formal diplomatic relations in May 1965, made it increasingly difficult for the agency to do anything of great significance in Cambodia. The resumption of diplomatic relations in August 1969 might have led to a bigger role for the CIA, but Senator Mike Mansfield promised Prince Sihanouk that the United States would not station CIA officers in the country. Even after the overthrow of Sihanouk in March 1970, the CIA showed little interest in greater involvement in Cambodia, much to the displeasure of President Richard Nixon. When Nixon learned from the CIA in July 1970 that its analysts had dramatically underestimated the extent of Vietnamese arms shipments to Sihanoukville, he described the CIA’s performance as among the “worst records ever compiled by the intelligence community” (p. 33). [End Page 250]
Even after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and the beginning of a decade-long occupation, the CIA’s involvement with the non-Communist opposition was never all that extensive. In contrast to what one might expect from the rhetoric of the time, the Reagan administration was extremely wary of any serious involvement with the Cambodian opposition. Despite CIA Director William Casey’s expressed desire to provide weapons to all global forces fighting Communism, the Reagan administration limited itself in 1982 to providing small amounts of non-lethal aid to the Cambodian opposition. The most vocal and effective proponent of aid to the Cambodian opposition throughout the period was Democratic Congressman Stephen Solarz, who played a role similar to the one played by Representative Charlie Wilson in Afghanistan. However, as Conboy notes, the amounts of aid provided to the Cambodian opposition were always paltry in comparison to those supplied in Afghanistan. In 1986, after Congress voted to give the CIA and the Reagan administration the latitude to provide lethal forms of assistance, both chose to continue providing only non-lethal assistance. Although it is true that the U.S. provision of non-lethal aid freed up resources so that other sponsors could provide lethal aid to the Cambodian opposition, there is very little evidence that either the CIA or the Reagan administration was anxious to expand the minimal U.S. financial and political investment in Cambodia.
The real strength of The Cambodian Wars is the definitive account it provides of the nature of the Cambodian resistance after the Vietnamese invasion. As Conboy shows in elaborate detail, the Cambodian opposition was always composed of competing factions, and it was not very successful in fielding large numbers of fighters on the ground through most of its existence. Although Conboy comprehensively documents the shifting cast of characters, one never gets a real sense of the deeper politics and aspirations of the resistance. Nor does he make fully clear how important...