- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 22, 2000

The smarminess of Bill Clinton knows no bounds. Even "Hanoi" Jane Fonda has apologized for her behavior during the Vietnam War, but the president who dodged the draft during the war, and lied about it later, had no problem clasping Vietnam in his clammy embrace this week, the country where his fellow Americans fought and died maybe one of them in his place.
It is hard to say which of the images coming out of the trip were more distasteful: There was Mr. Clinton speaking at the Vietnam National University, standing in front of a bust of Ho Chi Minh, emoting about how "the shared suffering has given our two countries a relationship unlike any other." There was Mr. Clinton, standing in a muddy field 17 miles outside Hanoi, where Vietnamese workers and American investigators were digging for the body of an American pilot downed in November 1967. Beside him stood the two sons of the pilot, hoping and praying to bring their father home, finally. Mr. Clinton was most certainly feeling their pain.
In stark and offensive contrast, while Mr. Clinton was thusly occupied in Vietnam, here at home Vice President Gore and his team were busy working to challenge military ballots from Florida for fear they might contain votes for Mr. Gore's opponent. In Broward County 304 out of 396 overseas military ballots were declared invalid. Vote counters were acting on advice from Gore lawyers, who had prepared ample documentation as to how the military ballots could be dismissed. That this strategy chimes rather badly with the oft-repeated refrain of the Democrats that "every vote counts" probably never bothered any of the Gore strategists for long. Nor did it in all likelihood occur to any of them that Mr. Gore, as commander in chief, might encounter some hard feelings from the men and women who had been disenfranchised through the efforts of his campaign. If it did, they surely didn't care.
Somehow it all fits together. One reason why Mr. Clinton was so fervently embraced by the Vietnamese "I love him!" cried a saleswoman in Ho Chi Minh City; "He's so handsome" is that he is considered one of the "good" Americans. "He's a wonderful man," a former Vietcong soldier in Hanoi said. "He was against the war in the past and now he is contributing to better relations between our countries." Indeed. For all Mr. Clinton's elaborate displays of sympathy, he clearly still harbors the same old views of the Vietnam War. Only as president, Mr. Clinton has been able to act on those sympathies in a more effective fashion than when he was a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford taking to the streets of London in protest against his own country.
One of Mr. Clinton's first foreign policy initiatives, in 1994, was to lift the American postwar embargo against Vietnam. This was by no means uncontroversial, since the Vietnamese government was (and remains) controlled by communists, and since Americans still remain unaccounted for in Vietnam. In 1995, under Mr. Clinton, the United States established full diplomatic relations with Vietnam. In July this year, Vietnam and the United States concluded a bilateral trade agreement with much fanfare (this still is pending congressional approval).
It is true that Mr. Clinton's messages on this trip of free market reforms and the rule of international law could benefit Vietnam greatly were they to be absorbed and applied. Nor can it hurt to keep preaching, but the prevailing attitude of the communist government with its corruption and unpredictability has prevented Vietnam from taking advantage of the opportunities offered by foreign business and investment. As noted on this page Friday by Vietnamese writer Le Van Tien, the Hanoi government is not about to surrender voluntarily to the laws of private enterprise and free trade.
Wrote Mr. Tien: "Commerce Minister Vu Khoan may have been more accurate in describing the agreement as 'a victory for the Vietnamese party and state's policy of independence, self-reliance, diversification, multilateralization, and active integration into the regional and world economy.' He urged state enterprises to seize the momentum given them by the agreement, taking advantage of their multi-year head start by quickly entering American markets and thereby dramatically increasing their size and strength in preparation for the eventual struggle for the soul of the domestic economy." State enterprises remain the heart and soul of the Vietnamese economy, and that does not appear to be about to change.
One of the stranger aspects of the Clinton presidency but maybe that is characteristic of his generation is that his personal history keeps intruding into matters of state, great and small. There is an overwhelming egocentrism at work here, which envelopes everything Mr. Clinton does. Mr. Clinton's trip to Vietnam the first by a U.S. president since the Vietnam War was described in the press as a journey of personal reconciliation. Well, he could have done that on his own dime if he had felt that passionately about making amends.
If the United States were to improve relations with Vietnam, if that country deserves our trade and aid, the first state visit ought to have fallen to a president who could look America's Vietnam veterans in the eye without shame. (Granted, Bill Clinton does not seem to be familiar with the concept of "shame," but anyway.)
E-mail: helle.bering@washtimes.com.

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