Bush visits Vietnam

President attends Asian-Pacific economic summit

November 17, 2006|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HANOI, VIETNAM -- Six years ago today, President Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit Hanoi and the first in more than three decades to visit Vietnam, closing a painful chapter in American diplomatic and military history.

When President Bush arrived today, in the shadows was an issue that was politically difficult for him when he first ran for the presidency, just as it was for Clinton: The question of military service during the Vietnam War.

And in the forefront, new attention to a question that is politically painful for him in 2006 -- whether the war in which he is now leading the nation, in Iraq, is turning into a new generation's equivalent of the torturous Vietnam conflict.

Bush flew here this morning after a one-day stop in Singapore, where he warned North Korea not to spread its nuclear technology to terrorist groups or other nations and said the United States' partners in the region need to recognize the threat the Pyongyang regime poses.

Speaking to government leaders and students at the National University of Singapore, Bush said, "America's position is clear: The transfer of nuclear weapons or materiel by North Korea to states or nonstate entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.

"For the sake of peace, it is vital that the nations of this region send a message to North Korea that the proliferation of nuclear technology to hostile regimes or terrorist networks will not be tolerated."

The audience remained silent throughout his speech and applauded politely when he was done.

Bush also made clear that he remained committed to liberalized trade rules, despite what he warned were "the old temptations of isolationism and protectionism" in the United States.

He said the creation of a free-trade agreement among the 21 nations of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, whose summit this weekend has brought Bush to Vietnam, "deserves serious consideration."

At a time when trade liberalization is meeting resurgent skepticism in the United States, and drew criticism in several congressional campaigns this fall, his less-than-enthusiastically worded endorsement suggested an easing of a 12-year-old goal to which the Clinton administration had committed the U.S.

In 1994 the economic group, to which the United States belongs, called specifically for "free and open trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific" by 2010 among developed nations and among its developing nations 10 years later.

A White House official said the president continued to favor meeting the two deadlines, even as he used what the aide acknowledged was "softer" language to express that objective.

For Vietnam, the annual APEC summit is seen as a demonstration of the country's emergence on the world stage, as an economic engine in Southeast Asia and as a nation that has moved beyond the war, although the Communist government still maintains strict one-party control and dissidents argue that political freedom has yet to match the economic progress.

Before Bush arrived, Congress dealt him a setback. He had hoped to have authorization earlier this week of legislation normalizing trade relations with Vietnam, but there were not enough votes to move the matter quickly through Congress. Republican congressional leaders, who remain in charge of the schedule during the lame-duck session, say they hope to revisit it next month.

The question of whether Bush is leading the United States into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Iraq, which his critics increasingly argue is the case, draws sharp challenges from the president and senior aides.

At a news conference one day after voters delivered what was largely interpreted as a rebuke to Bush over his Iraq policies, turning the war into a political issue much as the Vietnam War was during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bush said such an interpretation was wrong.

He said that Iraq, "after the overthrow of the tyrant," Saddam Hussein, established a constitution by ballot, elected a unity government, "which is different from Vietnam" three and four decades ago. He said the U.S. military was a volunteer force, not a draft-fed military, and that unlike during the Vietnam era, "the support for our troops is strong here in the United States."

"I don't think it is a parallel," he said.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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