WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration, its military aid plan for non-Communist rebels in Cambodia stalled on Capitol Hill, has decided that it would accept a compromise solution for a new government in that nation involving shared power between Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the present Vietnamese-backed regime, The Times has learned.
By agreeing to endorse the sort of settlement that it previously had scorned, the Administration has given Sihanouk, its favorite Cambodian leader, important maneuvering room to negotiate a deal that would freeze out the Khmer Rouge, the murderous Communist faction blamed for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians when it ruled the nation between 1975 and 1978.
Vietnam, which has occupied Cambodia since its invasion in 1978, has announced that it will withdraw its troops by Sept. 30, leaving the government, led by Hun Sen, to fend for itself. Unless there is agreement on a new interim government, the country almost certainly will be plunged into civil war once Hanoi's troops go home.
Sihanouk, Cambodia's best known and most durable politician, is the key to any negotiated settlement. He would be unlikely to complete a deal without at least tacit American backing.
But what Sihanouk will do with his new latitude is not yet clear. The prince currently is part of a very uneasy anti-Vietnamese alliance with the Khmer Rouge and a third group, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front, led by former Prime Minister Son Sann. But he has hinted that he is willing to abandon the Khmer Rouge in favor of a coalition with the current government.
The U.S. government has decided that a Sihanouk-Hun Sen coalition would be acceptable, provided it does not impede the total withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia, prevents the Khmer Rouge from regaining control and ultimately results in self-determination for the Cambodian people, according to Administration officials.
In effect, the Administration is prepared to support Sihanouk if the prince works out a deal that would give the Hun Sen regime a larger slice of power as a way to checkmate the Khmer Rouge.
Earlier, the United States backed a four-party coalition that would include the non-Communist factions led by Sihanouk and Son Sann along with the Khmer Rouge and the Hun Sen regime. U.S. officials envisioned a delicately balanced government with Sihanouk as its head in which the Khmer Rouge and the Hun Sen factions would offset each other, limiting their influence.
The Administration would prefer a government in which Sihanouk and Son Sann shared power and both Hun Sen and the Khmer Rouge were left out. But U.S. officials concede that the non-Communist factions lack the military and political muscle to take power by themselves.
With between 30,000 and 40,000 battle-tested guerrillas, the Khmer Rouge is generally believed to be the strongest of the three anti-Vietnamese factions.
To offset Khmer Rouge military might, the Administration had hoped to strengthen the non-Communist groupings by supplying them with up to $30 million worth of weaponry and other military aid. But that proposal ran into strong opposition on Capitol Hill, despite the support of Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Asia subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Opponents of the military assistance plan, led by Sens. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), chairman of the panel's Asia subcommittee, were uneasy about entangling the United States in another Indochinese military struggle and were concerned that the weapons ultimately would fall into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
"There is widespread opposition to any covert lethal assistance to Cambodia," a Senate staffer said. "The Congress has effectively stopped military aid.
"The congressional position, above all else, has been adamantly opposed to any return of the Khmer Rouge," he said. "If the Administration now plans to work with Sihanouk as he works for a relationship with Hun Sen, this would not produce any objections on the Hill. The Administration is taking the course of realism. Realism in a matter like this will play very well on the Hill."
In its earlier support for a four-faction coalition, the Administration paralleled China's policy. The Beijing government, a bitter foe of Vietnam, has long provided weapons to the Khmer Rouge. In recent years, China insisted on a role for its ally in a future Cambodian government but, at the same time, promised to prevent the Khmer Rouge from seizing total power.
Washington's new willingness to accept a Sihanouk-Hun Sen coalition probably reflects the deterioration in U.S.-China relations following China's brutal repression of pro-democracy demonstrators. It may also indicate that the United States no longer trusts China to prevent the Khmer Rouge from taking control.
There is no certainty that agreement can be reached on either the four-party or the two-party solution. And the Khmer Rouge may continue to fight if it fails to obtain a share of power at the negotiating table.