If you haven’t yet read the leaked white paper about the legality of drone strikes, you really ought to do so now. Considering that this seems to be the present and the future of military action, and that this is all generally shrouded in secrecy, it’s important to get a rough sense for what is going on.

I don’t intend to do a complete analysis of the white paper here. This post only concerns the curious invocation of American bombing of Cambodia in the 1970s as precedent for drone strikes in the absence of declared conflict. Pause for a moment to appreciate this, and to appreciate both the domestic and international repercussions of this intervention.

President Nixon announced the campaign in Cambodia, on April 30, 1970, describing it as a necessary element of the Vietnam War; the idea was that if troops from North Vietnam were hiding in parts of Cambodia, and if the Cambodian government was unable to do anything to stop it, the United States would. Needless to say, the expansion of the war into a non-belligerent country was controversial. The day after Nixon’s announcement—Friday, May 1—a rally was held at Kent State University in Ohio. It was scheduled to continue the following Monday, May 4, despite the presence of the National Guard, which had been called in over the weekend to disperse the crowd. The events of that day were memorialized by Neil Young: “Four dead in Ohio.”

Perhaps we can just blame that tragedy on the clash between the Guardsmen and the students, without calling into question the wisdom or legality of the policy itself. It is worth reflecting, then, on what the campaign meant for Cambodia itself. Most directly, the bombs that were dropped on Cambodia from 1969-1973 (a larger number than were dropped on Japan in World War II) contribute to the persistence of unexploded ordnance there. The effects of the bombing on the support for the Khmer Rouge insurgency is harder to assess, but the tragic consequences of the Khmer Rouge’s victory in 1975 suggest that any such intervention is inherently destabilizing. Regardless of whether there is legal culpability for the subsequent events in Cambodia, there is surely something morally questionable.

It isn’t even clear that the legal arguments are so clear-cut. While the white paper approvingly cites State Department Legal Adviser John Stevenson’s 1970 address on the bombing of Cambodia, a contemporaneous New York Times article described that Abram Chayes (my work in Cambodia last summer at the ECCC was funded by a fellowship in his name) “promptly rebutted” him. The same Times article quoted some language from Stevenson’s address, the Kafkaesque sentiment of which somehow failed to make it into the current DOJ white paper: “the United States had chosen to invade without Cambodian consent to preserve the neutrality of that country.”

Does the Department of Justice believe that the glorious history of American bombing in Cambodia supports the proposition that intervention in a neutral country is justified by that country’s inability to resolve the situation on its own? The example that they use is so awful that it is impossible to believe that anyone could say this in good faith. Which is probably why, in true legalistic fashion, the white paper doesn’t expressly say this. Note the use of double negatives in the white paper – they find no authority that says that they can’t intervene in this way. Experience, evidently, does not count. Instead, the Cambodian bombing has been stripped of its complicating nuances and controversies and has been transmuted into “the rule of historical practice.”

We know that Obama has largely continued the drone policies of the Bush administration. Even so, the approving nod to Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War across Southeast Asia is an unexpected development. I’m reminded of statements made by a Vietnam veteran in 1971: “We veterans can only look with amazement on the fact that this country has been unable to see there is absolutely no difference between ground troops and a helicopter, and yet people have accepted a differentiation fed them by the administration. No ground troops are in Laos, so it is all right to kill Laotians by remote control. But believe me the helicopter crews fill the same body bags and they wreak the same kind of damage on the Vietnamese and Laotian countryside as anybody else, and the President is talking about allowing that to go on for many years to come.” That veteran is now serving as our Secretary of State. I’m curious what he thinks about the use of the Cambodian bombing campaign as precedent for our current situation.