London -- Sunday November 19, 2006
Time for your Vietnam history lesson, GeorgeThe President's insistence on a 'victory' in Iraq blinds him to the outcome of another ill-fated war
Hanoi is not Baghdad. More like Washington, George W Bush must think as his motorcade sweeps past sparse crowds of people who don't look like admirers. Even so, the US President has not shirked from drawing comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. 'We'll succeed there unless we quit,' he said. It would just take time for 'an ideology of freedom to overcome an ideology of hate'.
Mr Bush's communist hosts must be puzzled by this analogy. Had the President blinked, perhaps, as Saigon fell? Had he misremembered how the home team won the war or failed to notice that the youth choirs, blue silk robes and fruit chips prepared for world leaders at this weekend's trade summit had all been offered in the name of Uncle Ho?
Victory hymns to the 'ideology of freedom' ring few cultural bells at the apex of a one-party state. And yet the President could be forgiven for his confusion. Vietnam, give or take a democracy deficit, has fulfilled all US dreams. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, where Bush will spend tomorrow, makes Wall Street look like a not-for-profit ashram. You don't have to work in the HSBC tower to be an entrepreneur. You can fix Honda moped tyres on pavement corners or join the tourist industry.
The Cu Chi tunnels, once a conduit for Vietcong fighters, have been widened to accommodate fat Western bottoms. Visitors can buy fake US dog tags, drink B52 cocktails at the Apocalypse Now club and haggle with children for pictures of Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old fleeing naked, her torso seared by napalm. Everything has marketing potential here. No commodity, agony included, lacks a price.
Homages to capitalism do not betoken greed. Long after the invaders left, US policy conspired against Vietnam, imposing 'Category Z' sanctions that made it a trade pariah and a no-go zone for aid. When I first went there, in the mid-Eighties, Western credit cards were outlawed, British companies were forbidden from using Microsoft and restaurants served cobra, killed to order. The squeamish could have fruitbat instead.
A pizza revolution later, repression dies hard. Bush arrived in Hanoi without the deal his hosts hoped for, after Congress stalled trade normalisation on the eve of his departure. But, despite all obstacles, Vietnam is now the world's second largest rice exporter, the newest member of the World Trade Organisation and a mini-China among tiger economies. Its government is often poor on human rights, but few are mentioning the plight of prisoners and street children as the world focus falls on a country in love with globalisation.
In a twist of history, America appears to have won the war it lost. So what, exactly, was the devastation for? Why were five million innocent lives wiped out? Orphanages are full of children born deformed by chemical defoliants: 10,0000 people have been blown up by landmines in the years after a war that killed 50,000 American soldiers. And all so that a US President could return, 30 years on, to talk tariffs with a regime that his country vowed and failed to crush. The final irony is that communist rule was empowered, not weakened, by the bloodshed.
Truly, as the President says, there are some lessons for Iraq. Only they are not the pursuit of victory to which he still aspires. Nor are they simple. Iraq never was Vietnam and it never will be. Saigon bears little more resemblance to Ambridge than to Basra, where Gordon Brown spent his Saturday. Tourists will not, three decades from now, be drinking smoothies in Baghdad's Shock'n'Awe American diner or firing E20 cluster shells for a dollar a go.
Communism is not comparable to jihadism entrenched by the invasion. Bush and Blair cannot, and should not, stampede out of the Persian Gulf as Nixon's forces once fled south east Asia. Vietnam did not become a bloodbath; Iraq, with all its tribal hatreds, might. The one bridge between the old quagmire and the new is fear underpinned by the bogus faith that the only alternative to Westernised democracy is nemesis.
Desperation breeds strange solutions. As Anatole Kaletsky argued in the Times last week, disaster in Vietnam drove the US to establish diplomatic bonds with communist China. The consequence was a foundation for a more stable world. This weekend, when not availing himself of the 'sanitary food', 'networking opportunities' and gifts of Miss Saigon Elegant perfume promised by the party committee newspaper, Bush will be consulting fellow leaders on global restructuring.
Top of the list is how to curb the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. North Korea is a failing state that should, on no account, have nuclear weapons. It is also amenable to dissuasion. Iran, however unpleasant its President, is a powerful and functioning nation. No current threats, or future attack, by the US and Israel can stop it getting the bomb. It is appalling that international will for nuclear non-proliferation has been eroded, not least by the US and the UK, but that is another story.
The question for Bush and Blair is simple. Either they ask Iran for help in Iraq, as James Baker's study group will recommend. Or they insist President Ahmadinejad first renounces nuclear ambition, which means no talks. It is a bitter choice, but armed states with international ties to foster are less dangerous than basket-case isolationists that export terrorism. Friends are generally less ominous than foes.
In addition, a more integrated Tehran could help counter the Sunni fundamentalism fostered in creaking states, such as Saudi Arabia. Talking to enemies produces odd alchemies. Diplomacy and shifting alliances can forge a forge a safer world in ways that elude leaders fixated on trouncing the untrounceable.
Bush and Blair, weakened at home, both find themselves in curious berths this weekend. The Prime Minister, brushing off his concession that Iraqi insurgency is disastrous, arrived last night in Pakistan, among allies whose madrasas inspire our disaffected Muslim youths taking gap years in radicalism. The President rubs shoulders with former untouchables whose communist government is showcasing a thriving, free-market economy.
Iraq's tomorrow looks bleak, but its conflict will have an end some day. All Bush and Blair can do now is to hasten peace in any way they can. That means talking to Iran and Syria, without ruinous preconditions, and recognising that diplomacy is usually less lethal than aggression.
Vietnam and Iraq have an identical message, for all their differences. One country offers a story of hope, the other - for now - of hopelessness. But the moguls of Hanoi and the morgues of Baghdad tell the same narrative of misbegotten war. So much blood running down the gutters of history, all shed for nothing.