Conscience and Catastrophe

by Richard Holbrooke | July 30, 1984

The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience

by William Shawcross

(Simon and Schuster, 464 pp, $19.95)

Great human disasters, natural or manmade, put bureaucrats to a test not only as public officials but as human beings. Normally insulated from the consequences of their actions by layers of government, and accustomed to the abstractions of statecraft, they suddenly are forced to deal with a problem in which every action (or inaction) can have an immediate effect on whether people will live or die. In an effort to examine in detail the reaction to catastrophe, William Shawcross has written The Quality of Mercy, a study of the response to the Cambodian food and refugee crisis since 1975. His new book lacks the clear focus of his ground breaking Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and tbe Destruction of Cambodia, but it does raise issues of the greatest importance in a century in which refugees have become a permanent part of our political landscape.

I must begin by declaring an interest. Having served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during much of the period he covers, I cannot pretend to objectivity in thinking about Shawcross's book. I was deeply involved in the events he discusses and, although Shawcross did not interview me, I am mentioned frequently and generally not unfavorably.

 

Like Shawcross, I have long been fascinated by a striking difference between disaster relief and the normal agenda of nations. The routine of government meetings never seems more unreal than when their consequences are so real—literally life or death—for people who have no spokesman present in the room. One such meeting that remains vividly in my mind took place in the White House Situation Room early in 1979. The South China Sea was filled with tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, many in ramshackle boats, seeking sanctuary' in neighboring countries. Large numbers of them drowned, and others were attacked by pirates. There were ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific, but not where the boat people were in greatest difficulty. At the time, the Navy was following traditional rules of the sea: picking up refugees sighted during regular naval patrols only if they appeared to be in imminent danger. No extraordinary rescue efforts were being made.

The question arose: Should the Seventh Fleet be instructed to make the rescue of refugees fleeing Vietnam, in effect, an additional assigned mission? There was serious division within the U.S. government. The Navy was concerned about the diversion of ships from their primary naval mission. Moreover, some countries in the area, in violation of long-standing rules of the sea, would not let ships unload refugees. What destination, then, for those picked up by the Seventh Fleet? Would the Navy bring them directly to the United States, allowing them to "jump the line" and enter the United States months, or even years, ahead of others already waiting in the swollen camps of Southeast Asia? Some, including at least one staff member of the National Security Council (not Zbigniew Brzezinski), opposed doing anything that might "generate" refugees. They argued that once the news reached Vietnam that the Seventh Fleet was rescuing refugees off the Indochinese coast, many more people would set out to sea in ever more dangerous small boats. This would not only create more refugees, they argued, but would also remove from Vietnam many people who, if forced to remain inside Vietnam, might cause the Communists serious internal problems.

Most of the points raised against the use of the Seventh Fleet had some validity. But as Washington argued, people continued to drown. Finally the issue made its way to a high-level meeting chaired by Vice President Mondale. Sitting at the head of the long table in the windowless, sterile atmosphere of the Situation Room, as far from the stormy waters of the South China Sea as could be imagined, we debated the issue, at times as though it was just another abstract interagency dispute. Mondale patiently listened to every argument for almost two hours. At the end of it all, he cut through the legalisms and the complications. He could not imagine, he said, being part of an Administration which did not ask itsa ships to try to rescue innocent people fleeing an oppressive regime. He wanted the orders to the Seventh Fleet amended in order to save lives.

At this time and distance it may be hard to conceive that the decision, so clearly right, was almost not made. There are people who are alive today because of Mondale's decision; of very few actions by a government official can such a thing be said.

 

I describe this incident at length before turning to William Shawcross's book because it illustrates several things about the way governments and bureaucrats approach such life and death issues. Many of the people involved in the debate over the use of the Seventh Fleet regarded it as just another bureaucratic problem. Hannah Arendt's memorable idea about the "banality of evil" showed how efficient Nazi bureaucrats could mobilize the German government to carry out a policy of mass slaughter. Perhaps here (on a wholly different scale, to be sure) we were seeing the evil of banality: functionaries engaged in the most routine sort of internal bureaucratic disputes while people in some remote corner of the globe die, or fester in refugee camps.

Shawcross traces the way perceptions of the Cambodia problem evolved in the West. One of his most provocative conclusions concerns the way in which "Cambodia, in the fall of 1979, after long years of disaster, [achieved] critical mass in Western conscience." Thishappened, he feels, in large part because of "the constant evocation of 'the Holocaust' . . . [which] was surely crucial to the way in which the disaster assumed such international emotional force." Shawcross agrees, of course, that Cambodia deserved "great attention." But he objects to the comparison with Hitler's war against the Jews as "coarsening" and "unfortunate." He observes correctly the critical historical differences between, say, Auschwitz and Pol Pot's torture chambers at Tuol Sleng, which were reserved primarily for the lapsed cadre of their own fanatical movement. Still, the differences between the Holocaust and Cambodia notwithstanding, the evocation of the memory was important in rallying worldwide support for a relief effort that saved large numbers of lives.

 

Shawcross makes a more telling point when he observes that the disasters "which do attract our attention are by no means always the most destructive." He cites Jim Grant of UNICEF, who has warned that "loud emergencies [like Cambodia| can drown out the continuous 'quiet emergencies' like the death of at least ten million children every year" from malnutrition. Grant's distinction is valid, but it should not be misunderstood as suggesting that money or one disaster can be reallocated easily to another. If only such a Benthamite calculus could be applied to the vast underclass of desperate peoples throughout the world, and relief funds distributed in strict accordance with need! Unfortunately the world does not work that way. For a variety of reasons, certain catastrophes will always elicit greater sympathy than others. Some people got more emotional over the killing of baby seals, for example, than the starvation of children in Angola. And public attention, always inconsistent, is a major factor. From a single memorable photograph, or one reporter in the right place at the right time, vast consequences may proceed. Conversely, no publicity in the West probably means no relief assistance from the West. Shawcross may lament this unfairness as much as the rest of us, but he offers no solution. As he surely knows, there is none.

At the end of 1978, at almost exactly the same time as the United States normalized diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, driving Pol Pot's forces into the remote western areas ofthe country but not destroying them completely (as American intelligence had predicted). This Vietnamese failure to wipe out the forces of their Pekingbacked foe was to have enormous consequences.

At about the same time, the world became acquainted with the boat people. As their numbers grew, evidence also mounted that the refugee flood was being cynically encouraged by the Vietnamese as a way of ridding themselves of an undesired element in their own society, particularly the ethnic Chinese, and throwing the burden tor their relief onto the West. In June 1979 Jimmy Carter used Presidential authority to allow 168,000 Indochinese refugees (not just boat people but also Laotians and Cambodians) into the United States annually for an indefinite period of time. Armed with this remarkable act of American generosity, the United States successfully lobbied other nations to join in a worldwide resettlement effort of refugees from the overflowing refugee camps in Southeast Asia. Shawcross barely mentions Carter's courageous decision, and seems either uninterested or unaware of the difficulties and the drama surrounding it. To be sure, the focus of his book is Cambodia, but the Vietnamese refugee problem and the Cambodian relief efforts always had to be dealt with together, and Carter's leadership was vital in mobilizing American and international efforts.

 

The next stage of the Cambodian tragedy then erupted. In the fail of 1979 the Vietnamese Army pushed the remnants of Pol Pot's forces to and across the Thai border. With the armies came an extraordinary collection of starving refugees, deserters, and wounded. No one will ever know how many people reached the border and how many died trying. At the time Washington received reports that perhaps as many as one million people were on their way to Thailand in desperate need of food and medical help. The Thais, quite understandably, panicked. Cambodia no longer existed as a buffer state between Thailand and Vietnam. The powerful Vietnamese Army was now on the Thai border, only four hours by road from Bangkok.

In Sideshow, Shawcross told the story primarily from the point of view of Washington-based policymakers. Here he tries a much more difficult approach, switching vantage point frequently from Geneva to Bangkok to Washington or New York, then taking the reader inside Cambodia for personal reportage. The story is often confusing, filled with the acronyms of the specialized agencies at the U.N., an enormous multinational cast of characters, and an intricate political situation. Shawcross is at his best describing his own trips into Cambodia and the tremendous frustrations that the relief workers faced in trying to help the Cambodian people. He is less successful in explaining the endless battles that took place in Geneva, New York, Bangkok, and Washington, Most seriously, Shawcross has underestimated the role of the U.S. government. In my view, it was the relentless pressure of genuinely concerned American officials that was critical in forcing timid, complacent, and bickering international relief officials to act. The United States may not have won any popularity contests at the United Nations for its arm-twisting, but the results justified any animosity created.

The American dilemma was simple. Our financial contribution to the relief efforts was the largest of any nation. We were resettling by far the largest number of refugees. The requirements of International relief work, however, meant that we had to work primarily through the U.N. specialized agencies and through the voluntary agencies, and to get them to act expeditiously we often pushed very hard. Not surprisingly, many U.N. officials resented this deeply, all the more since they were so dependent on American financial support. The main agent of this pressure was the American who was to play the most important role in the response to the crisis, the brilliant and dedicated ambassador in Thailand, Morton Abramowitz. Shawcross accords Abramowitz grudging admiration; he does not give him the credit he deserves. In my admittedly biased view—Shawcross correctly identifies Abramowitz as a friend of mine, although our friendship was made by working together and did not pre-date our professional association—Abramowitz's relentless harassment of officials in Bangkok, Washington, Geneva, and New York contributed more than any other single factor (with the possible exception of the press coverage) to the ultimate success of the relief operations. Shawcross accurately conveys some of the deep annoyance felt by some officials of the U.N. The reader can judge for himself whether it was worth it.

The first law of disaster relief could well read: every political decision has humanitarian consequences, and every humanitarian program has political implications. For example, the Vietnamese-installed regime in Phnom Penh was ready to let the people of western Cambodia starve rather than permit food to be distributed by truck across the Thai border into areas in which their control was contested. As for food and relief supplies offered by many voluntary agencies to the Phnom Penh regime, the Vietnamese tried to extract political advantage from every offer of humanitarian assistance. In the face of such unrelieved cynicism, it was tempting to give up any effort to get relief supplies into Cambodia, and necessary to remember at ail times that the purpose of getting aid inside Cambodia was to help preserve the Cambodian people in spite of the Vietnamese, not in collaboration with them.

Some American officials also contemplated using food to advance political objectives. Deny it to the people under Vietnamese control, one faction suggested, and somehow Hanoi's control over Cambodia would be weakened. Or distribute it only in those refugee areas which also sheltered the Khmer Rouge, and thereby help the anti Vietnamese resistance continue. Deny it to those same areas, suggested others, and starve out any remnants of the murderous Khmer Rouge. But the use of relief efforts, the use of food, for political ends, would have been tragically wrong. Although Shawcross seems uncertain as to Washington's motives, the fact is that the objective of American policy, constantly reaffirmed at the highest levels, was to save lives on both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border, without regard to politics.

 

Success in that objective had an unintended consequence: the armies on both sides were strengthened by the relief efforts. The effort to save the Cambodian people unavoidably also helped the people who had nearly destroyed Cambodia. This was not the deliberate objective of U.S. policy, but an undesired and unavoidable result. Here is where I believe that Shawcross has gone wrong. While granting that "Vietnam bears the principal, though not the exclusive, responsibility for the continued crisis today," he charges the United States with a "casual acceptance of what was a fundamentally Chinese strategy to rebuild and support the Khmer Rouge |which| exhibited at best a loss of memory and lack of imagination, at worst is cynicism that will have long and disturbing repercussions on international consciousness." This is a misreading of the policy decisions of American officials from President Carter and Secretary Vance on down. Shawcross may have found individual Americans whose attitudes reflected his conclusion, but Abramowitz and his team in Thailand did nothing that was intended to help the Khmer Rouge. The U.S. government was as aware as Shawcross of the murderous nature of Pol Pot's regime. China was of great importance to American foreign policy, but Peking did not decide, or even influence, Washington's approach to food distribution in Cambodia. If it had, Washington would have opposed any aid distribution insideCambodia, where it was bound to help the pro-Vietnamese side. Instead the United States played a major role in mobilizing relief efforts inside a country whose government it opposed.

 

Relief to the people on the Thai border could be accomplished through a large number of United Nations agencies and private voluntary organizations with the approval of the Thai government. Working inside Cambodia was infinitely more difficult. Since neither the United States nor the U.N. recognized the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh, all aid within Cambodia had to be channeled through UNICEF, the only U.N. agency that had the authority to operate in the absence of recognition, or through private voluntary agencies like Oxfam.

The division of labor that was finally worked out—UNICEF inside Cambodia, U.N.H.C.R. (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) outside it—made a great deal of sense. But U.N.H.C.R. was terrified of exceeding its mandate and UNICEF was looking for ways to get out of Cambodia and back to its basic worldwide concern for the problems of children. Moreover, camps in Thailand—run by the Thai government and U.N.H.CR.—were swollen with boat people and refugees from Laos; they were not putting out the welcome mat for Cambodians. Bowing to pressure from Bangkok, the U.N.H.C.R. refused to define the Cambodians who had come to the border as true refugees; the agency took responsibility only for those refugees processed into U.N.H.C.R. camps a few miles away. Thus the most dangerous and desperate area—the strip along the border—became a no man's land between the two major U.N. organizations, neither of which wanted the additional responsibility. Instead, aid and food distribution on the border was left to a motley assortment of uncoordinated organizations and individuals. They did a remarkable job under the circumstances.

Both inside and outside Cambodia, the performance of the United Nations' specialized agencies was generally disappointing, and would have been more so if not for American pressure. This is a sad conclusion, reluctantly arrived at, especially for those of us who believe the United Nations still has an important contribution to make to the solution of some of the world's problems. To be sure, without the U.N. the relief efforts would have been virtually impossible, But the U.N. agencies were tied up in their own thick web of inefficiency and squabbling. They consistently under-reacted to warnings from the region. Waldheim was reluctant toact; the U.N. Secretary-General behaved as though he was personally offended by the intrusion of the refugees into his long (and fortunately unsuccessful) campaign for reelection, a campaign which required that he not alienate either the Soviet Union or the Third World. What little he did do—such as presiding over the 1979 and 1980 conferences in Geneva—was in large part because of enormous pressure from the United States, Australia, the Western Europeans, and world opinion.

There is special irony in the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in 1980 mainly in recognition of its work in Southeast Asia. Giving this award to the U.N.H.C.R. as a symbolic recognition of the army of dedicated workers, many of them volunteers, who had flocked to the region, made some sense. But theU.N.H.C.R.'s early representatives in Bangkok were incompetent, and failed to recognize the problem. They fought other agencies for primacy, yet they refused to help or accept as refugees hundreds of thousands of Cambodians huddling in the open fields along the border. Giving the Nobel Peace Prize to that group of smug, overpaid, and world-weary Geneva-based functionaries was finally an abuse of that high honor.

I recognize that some, especially among the United Nations international civil servants, will dispute these judgments. They are harsher than, but not inconsistent with, Shawcross's picture of the international relief community, especially in the early period. Defenders of the U.N. agencies will point to the immensely difficult problems in trying to help the people of a country when the government in power has been denied {with American support) representation in the United Nations. Furthermore, the Vietnamese made life almost unbearable for the dedicated relief workers, even holding up barges of perishable food, for example, in an effort to charge heavy "haulage fees"—really payoffs to Hanoi.

Shawcross thinks that the relief agencies and the press exaggerated the size of the Cambodian food crisis. The truth is somewhat more complex than he suggests. No one ever knew exactly how many people were at the border, nor just how serious the threat of starvation was inside Cambodia. There was no time to make a precise determination. Those who cared about the issue needed to mobilize other people and resources, and the best way to do this was to make estimates of disaster which, while credible, were as pessimistic as possible. In the absence of precise information, it was safer to risk overestimating the problem and having too much aid, rather than underestimating it and having too little. As Abramowitz said, "If only 100,000 people die instead of one million, does that mean it is not a crisis?"

Shawcross's book attempts to rescue from dusty archives and fading memories the story of how the world reacted to one particularly grave crisis. His worthy hope is that lessons will be drawn for the next disaster. Too little of this sort of thing has been done; once a disaster has lost its television audience it is quickly forgotten, even if there is still war and there are still refugees along the Thai border today, I would contribute the following conclusions to the discussion:

Despite all the difficulties and inefficiency, the Cambodian relief efforts and the resettlement of Indochinese refugees turned out to be relatively successful. A very large number of lives were saved.

This was due in large part to American leadership, an essential ingredient in such situations. We pay much of the bill, and we have a right to insist on better performance from the international civil servants who carry out the job. We should not shrink from the responsibility. No one else can fill it.

The international agencies of the U.N. and the private voluntary agencies are filled with dedicated people, but they must be pressured constantly. (A personal prejudice: U.N.H.C.R. should not be headquartered in the unreal beauty of Geneva, but in some sweatier city closer to the world of refugees.)

The press is essential. Without massive coverage—and that means television pictures—little will be done. (In this regard Henry Kamm of The New York Times deserves special mention for his reporting from Thailand.)

Relief operations are expensive and inevitably wasteful. But they are an unavoidable obligation of the richer nations. Countries, like Japan, which are slow to recognize this responsibility must be pressured until they too respond.

Politics will always intrude. But the first obligation of the donor nations must be to rescue the victims. Political consequences, even serious ones, must be set aside when lives are at stake.

It is better to overestimate than to underestimate the size of the problem.

There will be other major man-made disasters, and more must be done to anticipate the need for emergency arrangements.

Natural disasters can, of course, occur anywhere on earth. Latin America and especially Africa are more likely candidates for future man-made crises than Asia, and they may receive far less publicity than did disasters that came out of Indochina. Shawcross has done future victims a service by trying to interest people in the complex story of how the world reacts to this kind of disaster. The specifics of each crisis will vary enormously. There will be those who say, for example, that Cambodia teaches us no lessons for African relief. They are wrong. The central lesson, embodied in every detail of Shawcross's story, is that people must care, that extraordinary efforts are required to rouse people from their comfortable good time in order to do something to help those living, in George Steiner's phrase, in the "enveloping folds of inhuman time."

If people do care, miracles can happen. Take the case of Chi Luu, one of the boat people, who came to New York with his family in November 1979, after five months in a refugee camp. Within a year, Mr. Luu had entered City College of New York, studying, working part-time in a can factory, and improving his English. Last month he graduated as valedictorian of his class, with a straight-A average in his major, engineering, and only a single B, in freshman English. He is entering M.I.T. this fall.

Richard Holbrooke is vice-president of Public Strategies, a Washington-based consulting firm, and a senior adviser to Shearson Lehman/American Express.

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