- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 11, 2012

VIENTIANE, Laos (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Laos in more than five decades, gauging whether a place the United States pummeled with bombs during the Vietnam War could evolve into a new foothold of American influence in Asia.

Clinton met with the communist government’s prime minister and foreign minister in the capital of Vientiane on Wednesday, part of a weeklong diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia. The goal is to bolster America’s standing in some of the fastest growing markets of the world, and counter China’s expanding economic, diplomatic and military dominance of the region.

Thirty-seven years since the end of America’s long war in Indochina, Laos is the latest test case of the Obama administration’s efforts to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy away from the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It follows a long period of estrangement between Washington and a once hostile Cold War-era foe, and comes as U.S. relations warm with countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam.

In her meetings, Clinton discussed environmental concerns over a proposed dam on the Mekong River, investment opportunities and joint efforts to clean up the tens of millions of unexploded bombs the U.S. dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. Greater American support programs in these fields will be included in a multimillion-dollar initiative for Southeast Asia to be announced later this week.

After the meetings, she said they “traced the arc of our relationship from addressing the tragic legacies of the past to finding a way to being partners of the future.”

Clinton also visited a Buddhist temple and a U.S.-funded prosthetic center for victims of American munitions.

At the prosthetic center, she met a man named Phongsavath Souliyalat, who told her how he had lost both his hands and his eyesight from a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday.

“We have to do more,” Clinton told him. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together.”

The last U.S. secretary of state to visit Laos was John Foster Dulles in 1955. His plane landed after being forced to circle overhead while a water buffalo was cleared from the tarmac.

At that time, the mountainous, sparsely populated nation was at the center of U.S. foreign policy. On leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned his successor, John F. Kennedy, that if Laos fell to the communists, all Southeast Asia could be lost as well.

While Vietnam ended up the focal point of America’s “domino theory” foreign policy, Laos was drawn deeply into the conflict as the U.S. funded its anti-communist forces and bombed North Vietnamese supply lines and bases.

The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on the impoverished country during its “secret war” between 1964 and 1973 — about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeded the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed nation per person in history.

Four decades later, American weapons are still claiming lives. When the war ended, about a third of some 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos had failed to detonate, leaving the country awash in unexploded munitions. More than 20,000 people have been killed by ordnance in postwar Laos, according to its government, and contamination throughout the country is a major barrier to agricultural development.

Cleanup has been excruciatingly slow. The Washington-based Legacies of War says only 1 percent of contaminated lands have been cleared and has called on Washington to provide far greater assistance. The State Department has provided $47 million since 1997, though a larger effort could make Laos “bomb-free in our lifetimes,” California Rep. Mike Honda argued.

“Let us mend the wounds of the past together so that Laos can begin a new legacy of peace,” said Honda, who is Japanese-American.

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