President Bush Extols Lessons of Vietnam

A week-long trip to Asia takes the President to the capital of his least favorite analogy. But he says a lost war shows the necessity of steadfastness in a new one.

BY MIKE ALLEN/HANOI

Around President Bush’s White House the past three years, “Vietnam” has been viewed, by and large, as an emotional buzzword used by journalists to draw comparison to the Iraq war that the administration views as inapt and inaccurate. In the Rose Garden in June, Ann Compton of ABC News asked the President if he saw, a parallel between what’s going on in Iraq now and Vietnam. “No,” the President replied, pointing out that Iraq has a government chosen in an election that drew 12 million voters. “Obviously,” he added, “there is sectarian violence, but this is, in many ways, religious in nature, and I don’t see the parallels.”

Now, he does. Not the quagmire alleged by the critics, of course. But as the President arrived Friday morning for three days in Vietnam, Jennifer Loven of The Associated Press asked if this nation of river deltas holds any lessons for the debate over Iraq. “Yes,” he answered. “One lesson is, is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while.” Bush went on to say that Iraq is part of a “great struggle” between “radicals and extremists, versus people who want to live in peace.” He said overcoming “the ideology of hate” with freedom is going to take a long time. “Yet, the world that we live in today is one where they want things to happen immediately,” he said.

The President said at a later appearance that he has been “reading and studying” about the country. “One of the most poignant moments of the drive in,” he said at the Sheraton Hanoi, “was passing the lake where John McCain got pulled out of the lake. And he’s a friend of ours; he suffered a lot as a result of his imprisonment, and yet, we passed the place where he was, literally, saved, in one way, by the people pulling him out.” The Arizona Senator paid a visit in 2000 to Truc Bach Lake where, as a Navy lieutenant commander, he had ejected after being hit by a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile during his 23rd bombing run over North Vietnam. He was taken to the “Hanoi Hilton” and was a prisoner of war for five years, two of them in solitary confinement. The attack is now commemorated with a stone marker emblazoned “U.S.” that was visible from the presidential motorcade.

From Bush’s window, he could also see bicycles and motorcycles laden with precisely balanced baskets, buckets and bundles that would tax some small cars. Even Vietnam’s capital city remains relatively primitive, with hundreds of individual power lines running along the street like great skeins of spaghetti. Bush is in Hanoi for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and he was greeted at an arrival ceremony at the European-style Presidential Palace, which originally was the living and working quarters for the French Governor General of Indochina. A young girl presented the President with a bouquet at the ceremony, and he bent over to kiss her before reviewing military troops. The First Lady, Laura Bush, accompanied him and got a big bouquet from a young boy. Outside the gates, four U.S. flags and four Vietnamese flags marked the historic visit.

Within hours of his arrival, Bush was photographed at the palace in front of a huge bust of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary Communist leader. Bush planned a meeting with the Secretary General of the Communist Party, at party headquarters. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said the meeting was being held because Vietnam is a Communist state. Snow told reporters aboard Air Force One that the Iraq and Vietnam wars are “not comparable” situations, and said he had not heard any concerns from Republicans about the President appearing with trappings of the Communist Party. “Vietnam is now making a transition, we’re certainly encouraging that reform in many ways,” Snow said, noting that the President will be discussing his “freedom agenda” for encouraging democracy abroad. It was that agenda that got the President into Iraq. Bush plans a breezy, aggressive schedule for the new few days, eager to show he can salute progress in Vietnam without getting bogged down in suggestions that he may be stuck in one of his own.

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