Vietnam: Focusing on the Future

Until now, Vietnam has symbolized two strands in President Bush's political life: a war he didn't fight in and a comparison he wants to avoid. But this week the country becomes not just a metaphor but a reality, as Bush visits Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for the first time. Bill Clinton embraced history in his wildly popular trip in 2000, when he became the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the war. But Bush is choosing to concentrate not on the country's past but its future. At a recent meeting with his Asia advisers, Bush was fascinated by Vietnam's economic boom, which his economists likened to China's position a decade ago. "I wonder if people at the end of the Vietnam War would ever have thought that at the end of 2006 a president would go there and there would be a market-based economy in a country that was becoming freer," Bush told aides, according to one who was in the room but asked for anonymity because the briefing was private.

Small wonder Bush doesn't want discussion to focus on the war. The president and his advisers strongly reject any comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq (although, ironically, Vietnam's outcome, three decades after U.S. forces abandoned Saigon, has been positive). Bush's aides say U.S. troops enjoy far greater public support than did their predecessors in Vietnam. They also say morale inside the military is far higher than it was during Vietnam. Most of all, Bush's national-security team rejects the notion that America could safely pull out of Iraq, as it did from Vietnam. "There were discussions about dominos, some which fell, some which didn't fall," national-security adviser Steve Hadley told reporters last week. "But nobody, I think, felt that it would result in a clear and present danger to the territory of the United States." A terrorist-run Iraq, he argued, would pose just such a threat to the homeland.

Bush--who travels to Vietnam for the APEC regional economic conference--will have plenty of forward-looking topics to talk about with his regional hosts. In meetings with the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea, he will discuss North Korea's nuclear threat. At a later stop on his trip, Bush will briefly visit Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country and the home to what the White House calls "an active Al Qaeda-linked terrorist presence."

In his 1999 autobiography, Bush explained his thinking during the Vietnam War. "My inclination was to supportthe government and the war until proven wrong," he wrote, "and that only came later, as I realized we could not explain the mission, had no exit strategy, and did not seem to be fighting to win." That's the kind of comment that sounds all too familiar about Iraq right now--and one that the White House will be doing its best to avoid, by focusing on a brighter future ahead for both countries.