- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Eight years ago, candidate Bill Clinton promised that he "would not coddle tyrants in Baghdad or Beijing," but instead would "champion the cause of freedom in Haiti and Cuba and Europe." Sadly, as with so much of his presidency, the rhetoric didn't match the record. And so it's oddly fitting that the end of the Clinton era coincides with a presidential visit to Vietnam, one of the last communist dictatorships on earth.

Mr. Clinton is the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam in more than three decades, and one cannot help but wonder why he decided to add this land of old wounds and old ghosts to his term-ending tour. Stunted by communism and war, Ho Chi Minh's homeland is not exactly a linchpin of regional stability. Nor has Vietnam done America any favors. Indeed, the remains of some 2,000 U.S. servicemen are buried or hidden in Vietnam's jungles and river beds, and Hanoi barely lifts a finger in the arduous recovery efforts.

Moreover, despite warmer relations with Washington relations which have opened the door to $770 million in annual exports to the United States Vietnam has not made much progress on the road to freedom. In fact, Freedom House rates Vietnam among the most repressive states in the world, and most observers believe recent economic troubles have only emboldened Hanoi's hard-liners and old guard.

Mr. Clinton may be the first president to travel to Vietnam in decades, but he's not the first president to leave office with Vietnam on his mind. In fact, in 1989, Ronald Reagan said good-bye to America by telling a story about Vietnam. "It was back in the early 1980s, at the height of the boat people," he began. "And a sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea." As it cut through the choppy waves, Mr. Reagan explained, the Midway came across "a leaky little boat" crammed with refugees from the killing fields of Indochina. They hoped to do the impossible, to reach America's shores and to find freedom. But on this day, freedom found them first. The Midway stopped to pluck the refugees from danger, and as the giant ship drifted toward the tiny raft one of the refugees stood up and yelled out in broken English, "Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man!" "A small moment with a big meaning," Mr. Reagan recalled, "because that's what it was to be an American in the 1980s. We stood, again, for freedom."

But we didn't in the 1990s. Far from rescuing refugees on the high seas, Mr. Clinton barred them from U.S. waters and made a practice of sending them back to tyranny. First, it was Cuban refugees, then Chinese. Under Mr. Clinton's myopic gaze, freedom was routinely sacrificed on the altar of political expedience. And the assaults went far beyond normalizing relations with Vietnam, nuzzling up to Beijing or appeasing North Korea.

Consider the record: As Taiwan held the first democratic elections in the 5,000-year history of the Chinese people, Beijing launched massive war games to blockade the island and intimidate its people. For days, the island was left twisting in the gales of Beijing's missile tests. Only after the courageous people of Taiwan voted did the president deploy a pair of carrier battle groups to the region. By that time, Beijing's temper tantrum was over. Taiwan's new democracy had weathered the storm alone. For the balance of his presidency, Mr. Clinton averted his gaze from the millions languishing in the mainland's slave labor camps, their voices silenced by his quest for Permanent Normal Trade Relations.

He also refused to lift a finger to help Iraqi freedom fighters, even though Congress earmarked $97 million for their cause and ordered him to disburse it. Today, they have no real home and no hope. And as Moscow carpet-bombed tiny Chechnya, which wanted nothing more than freedom from a corrupt government, Mr. Clinton blithely compared the pogrom to America's Civil War, likening Russia's politically schizophrenic Boris Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln.

Marveling at America's capacity to impact other countries, Mr. Reagan observed, "We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world." Mr. Clinton promised "to change the character of the presidency," and the changes he wrought weren't confined to the Oval Office. Indeed, they touched every corner of the world. Just ask the widows of Chechnya, who saw their husbands and sons die by the tens of thousands while the self-styled champion of freedom toasted Moscow's rulers. Ask the dispossessed of Kosovo, who are governed by neither Belgrade nor Pristina now, but by an unelected U.N. bureaucrat. Ask the friendless and forgotten of northern Iraq, who nervously await America's help and Saddam's vengeance. Look to the island democracy of Taiwan, where 21 million people prepare for war after almost a decade of American appeasement.

Look across the Taiwan Straits, to Beijing, where Mr. Clinton's behavior went beyond coddling. Or look to the island dictatorship of Cuba, where a little boy named Elian was sentenced to return at the point of a gun. Sadly, "freedom man" didn't have time for refugees or their leaky little boats in the 1990s. He was under orders to sail.

Alan W. Dowd is an aide to Rep. Dan Burton.

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