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Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2000

When paranoia is in power, prepare to be surprised

Staff writer
WHY VIETNAM INVADED CAMBODIA: Political Culture and the Causes of War, by Stephen J. Morris. Stanford University Press, 1999, 315 pp., $49.50/30 British pounds (cloth), $18.95/11.95 British pounds (paper).

In July 1973, the Khmer Rouge launched an offensive against Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh. Assisted by American air power, the weak Cambodian government repelled the assault and inflicted massive losses against the KR. The timing of the attack made no sense: The U.S. Congress had voted to bar all funding for the war after Aug. 15. In other words, if the KR had waited a month and a half, they could well have taken the city, and certainly avoided the losses. Why didn't they wait?

That tantalizing question lies at the heart of Stephen Morris' fascinating study of the conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia, a clash that culminated in an invasion by Vietnam on Dec. 25, 1978, "the first and only extended war ever fought between two communist regimes."

The offensive was only one in a series of seemingly irrational decisions made by the KR and the Hanoi government during that period. Morris, using material from the Soviet Union's Communist Party Central Committee archives and interviews with leading figures in Cambodia, Vietnam and Russia, provides a disturbing assessment of decision-making by "chiliastic" regimes, those that frame the world in Manichean terms -- such as revolutionary communist parties.

Morris' conclusion is disturbing because it suggests that such regimes are not rational. Rather, the "guilt and fear induced by massive bloodletting exacerbated the paranoid vision of the ruling elite, which sees the world as embroiled in an unceasing struggle between the Revolution and its foreign and domestic enemies." It has always been assumed that such paranoia was the province of individual dictatorships: Morris argues that an entire class, or political culture, can be seized by it. If he is right, then we have to rethink some basic principles about international relations.

Morris identifies several other KR decisions that confirm his "paranoia" thesis. In September 1971, the leadership decided that Vietnam was Cambodia's long-term "acute enemy" and decided to expel all Vietnamese troops and cadres. That didn't make sense since "Cambodian government forces outnumbered communist troops in Cambodia and three-quarters of those communist troops were Vietnamese." No, the rational thing to do was to confront the main enemy first and then, after defeating it, move on to the Vietnamese threat.

Similarly, the KR decision, once it had seized power, to launch attacks against Thailand seems mad. The KR was outnumbered and outgunned, its population fatigued by war and depleted by KR policies designed to rebuild society from Year Zero.

Finally, KR attacks against Vietnam that triggered the invasion by Hanoi make no sense either. Vietnam's armed forces were nearly 10 times the size of Cambodia's, and its weapons much superior; Vietnam's population was seven times larger and, while weary of war, in much better shape than that of Cambodia.

Why, then, did the government in Phnom Penh do what it did? Morris argues that the KR feared internal enemies. In fact, the Vietnamese government did see itself as the rightful leader of Indochina's communist parties, but the KR had headed off any threat through a series of purges in the early '70s. At the same time, the KR believed, like mentor and guide Mao Zedong, that spiritual factors could outweigh objective and material conditions. They paid dearly for that mistake.

According to Morris, Hanoi made its own miscalculations. Vietnam's alignment with the Soviet Union during its war with the United States makes no sense since it needlessly antagonized China, a powerful ally and neighbor. It repeatedly sided with Moscow on Communist Party issues that inflamed Beijing's sensitivities. Morris believes Hanoi did not have to choose as it did.

Hanoi also needlessly irritated China when it repressed and expelled many ethnic Chinese after it took power in 1975. While the policy was ostensibly aimed at preventing a Chinese "fifth column" from undermining the Hanoi government, Morris argues the fear was overblown, the product of the Manichean outlook that is inherent in any revolutionary party.

While China's history of regional dominance seems to provide reason for Vietnam's actions, Morris says that "deference, not overt hostility, was the traditional pattern of Vietnamese diplomatic relations with China. . . . history suggests that the Vietnamese might just as well have aligned themselves with China as against it . . ."

(Morris believes Hanoi turned against China because Beijing threatened to split the international communist movement and that violated the VCP's basic ideology. Insofar as ideology trumped national interests, Morris argues the decisions were irrational.)

There's a twist to this: While Vietnam made irrational decisions vis-a-vis China, policy toward Cambodia was always rational and correct. Vietnam stayed focused on its primary goal -- defeating the U.S. -- and tolerated all sorts of KR indignities and attacks until it won the war. Morris concludes that the key point is the relative strength of the party in the bilateral relationship: The weaker party acts irrationally.

"The combination of extreme anxiousness -- caused by disagreements among fellow ideologues -- and powerlessness, causes emotional 'lashing out' by the weaker regime against the stronger. The sense of moral virtue, with which all of those regimes are imbued, especially in their early decades in power, gives psychological comfort to and reinforces the emotional impulses of regime leaders. That sense of moral virtue is derived from adherence to the revolutionary ideology."

A large question hangs over this excellent and engrossing study: How do we define irrational? Some decisions seem irrational, but that is because they are based on mistaken information. Alternatively, we can always explain a choice, but that does not mean that it is rational. A realist assumes that any decision that puts ideology above national interest is wrong/irrational per se, but that offers no comfort for decision-makers, who must anticipate their interlocutors' actions and reactions.

The implications of Morris' work are troubling. If regimes -- and not just leaders -- can act irrationally, then decision-makers have to be wary of boxing opponents in (when they are ideologically driven). That may be relevant when dealing, for example, with North Korea.

In the case of Vietnam, Morris paints a political culture that is far more ideological than we commonly like to believe. Hanoi's reluctance to embrace the economic reforms urged on it by the U.S. suggests his portrait is accurate. I am not sure if that is good or bad.

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