- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

Congressional election coverage buried news that former Sandinista dictator Daniel Ortega was elected president of Nicaragua on Nov. 5.

In his victory speech, Mr. Ortega thanked his leftist “brothers” Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Mr. Castro praised Mr. Ortega, whose armed movement was one of several Mr. Castro (with Soviet backing) had supported in the 1980s, saying Mr. Ortega’s election “fills our people with joy, at the same time filling the terrorist and genocidal government of the United States with opprobrium.” For his part, Mr. Ortega talked of the Iraq war and how the new Democratic majority in the U.S. Congress should force America to “pull its troops out of that country.”

Mr. Ortega knows the power of Congress to help foreign thugs like himself by constraining American actions. Starting in 1982, Democratic Rep. Edward Boland sponsored measures adopted by Congress to prohibit the Reagan administration from providing military support “for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua,” then a Marxist junta led by Mr. Ortega. There were loopholes in the law, which the National Security Council exploited to continue aiding the anti-communist Contra rebels. President Ronald Reagan called Mr. Ortega’s regime “one of the world’s principal refuges for international terrorists” and a “partner of Iran, Libya, North Korea and Cuba.”

Congress tightened the restrictions further in 1984, but covert aid continued to the Contras. Under increasing pressure from the freedom fighters, Mr. Ortega agreed to allow elections in Nicaragua in 1990. The collapse of the Soviet Union had cut off his foreign support. The Sandinistas lost that election and several since.

History never comes to an end, however, nor do struggles ever cease. Mr. Ortega has returned to power with 38 percent of the vote against a split opposition.

Another slice of history has also returned to the agenda. Vietnam is joining the World Trade Organization. Congress has been considering legislation to grant the Hanoi regime normal trade status. (That proposal failed to pass Monday but officials believe it eventually will.) Vietnam’s communist rulers now want the benefits of capitalist investment and commerce that Ho Chi Minh expended 3 million lives in a savage war to extinguish.

South Vietnam could have become another Asian tiger economy, as did South Korea and Taiwan after having been defended from communist invasion attempts. But Saigon fell in 1975 to North Vietnamese troops and tanks. In the decades since, the people of Vietnam have suffered under a brutal dictatorship, isolated much like North Korea from the progress of the outside world. The 2006 Index of Economic Freedom published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal says, “graft remains rampant… the human rights record remains poor.” The index ranks Vietnam at 142, near the bottom of its list of 157 countries, in company with such tyrannies as Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma and North Korea.

A Democratic Congress played a major role in condemning Vietnam to this tragic fate. Much of the current public dissatisfaction with Iraq is due to the failures of post-invasion planning that allowed insurgents and hostile neighboring states to launch a sustained campaign of terrorism. In Vietnam, however, congressional opposition consolidated after a series of American battlefield successes. With communist forces pushed back from South Vietnamese cities following the failure of Hanoi’s 1968 Tet Offensive, U.S.-led forces raided enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia in 1970. This set off a wave of antiwar activity, culminating in June 1971 with passage of an amendment by Democratic Majority Leader Sen. Mike Mansfield calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Indochina at the “earliest practical date.”

With the enemy beaten (if not defeated), U.S. forces started to come home as South Vietnamese stood up a million-man army. In 1972, Hanoi again invaded, hoping to take advantage of the absence of U.S. combat units. Saigon’s forces held firm with the aid of U.S. air power. But bringing American troops home and signing a peace agreement did not satisfy the antiwar mob. South Vietnam had to lose to validate the leftist cause.

In May 1973, Congress voted to cut off all funds for military action in Indochina, including air support. Having deprived Saigon of U.S. firepower, Congress then cut aid to South Vietnam, resulting in shortages of fuel, spare parts and ammunition. Meanwhile, the Soviets were increasing their military aid to Hanoi, building a new invasion force that the abandoned Saigon government could not stop.

Today, the Democrats are committed to withdrawing troops from Iraq, but have been cautious about when. They know American opinion is agitated by a failure to win, not a desire to lose. A postelection Newsweek poll found 78 percent of respondents concerned that the Democrats would be too hasty in demanding a withdrawal.

Democrats have talked of disengagement by 2008, a date geared to the election cycle rather than to events in the Middle East. The question is whether the party’s more responsible members will be able to hold off the party’s left-wingers who favor a U.S. defeat to discredit use of military action.

Will the tragic history of congressional actions be avoided, or merely repeated?

William Hawkins is senior fellow for national security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

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