Bush in Hanoi: Vietnamese lessons for Iraq

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HANOI. (RIA Novosti political commentator Dmitry Kosyrev) - On November 18-19, George W. Bush will attend the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam, the country where his predecessors were defeated in a war more than 30 years ago.

The U.S. president will make the trip soon after his party's failure to maintain control of Congress because of the country's unsuccessful strategy in Iraq. Judging by how Vietnam views the U.S. and by their bilateral contacts, it is possible to forecast what will happen "after Iraq," only with some caveats.

One important difference between Vietnam and Iraq is that U.S. losses in the latter have only just climbed above 3,000 soldiers. According to Vietnam, the United States lost 58,000-60,000 servicemen in its war, a figure that may not necessarily coincide with official U.S. data. On the other hand, at least tens of thousands of Iraqi and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed in both wars, and some Iraqi reports speak about hundreds of thousands, to say nothing of the devastated infrastructure and economy.

As in the case of Iraq, which is still occupied by U.S. troops, few people expected Vietnam to feel friendly toward the United States in the 1970s. However, later this week George Bush will go to Hanoi, and in 2000 his predecessor, Bill Clinton, visited the country.

Though Clinton visited Vietnam 25 years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saigon, any reminder of the war and contacts with the United States still provoke such strong reactions that my interlocutors in Hanoi asked to remain anonymous.

According to a Vietnamese government official, the last hurdle was cleared in 1995, before Clinton's visit, when diplomatic relations were reestablished with the United States. He said that by then Hanoi had resolved to "let bygones be bygones, and to look forward to developing relations with all countries."

A Vietnamese political analyst failed to produce any specific sociological data on how the Vietnamese felt toward the U.S. in the 1970s, the 1990s, and today, as no surveys have been conducted. However, people are unlikely to forget anything here. The war touched every family, and it has not been forgotten yet. The political analyst himself, who is a war veteran, was among those who were exposed to Agent Orange, a U.S. defoliant that proved to have genetic effects on both Vietnamese and American soldiers. The Vietnamese veteran was very worried before his daughter was born, and last year he was anxious before his granddaughter was born. He was lucky, and neither girl had any birth defects. Other families have been less fortunate, even now in the third post-war generation.

In 2000, many Hanoi residents wanted to see Clinton in person not because he was the president of the world's strongest country, but the richest one. Vietnam has always understood the potential of U.S. force and persistence. However, they were more concerned with economic recovery in their own country.

The United States has become Vietnam's No. 1 economic partner, a government source said, mostly owing to U.S. investment in the Vietnamese food and textile industries, which mostly supply the U.S. market.

Over 30 years ago, during the war, China and Russia were Vietnam's major allies. China has become Vietnam's second largest trade partner after the EU, and bilateral trade is expected to reach $10 billion this year. However, China has invested less in the country than the United States or the EU. Russia retains key, though not monopoly, positions in the Vietnamese oil sector and is involved in joint research in hi-tech spheres, such as biotechnologies. Yet its trade is only one tenth of that between Vietnam and China. Economic reality is a major factor for a country that has survived post-war depreciation.

Yet developments in the Pacific are peculiar. George Bush will visit Vietnam as U.S. president and as one of the 20 leaders of the Asia-Pacific economies. Among other functions, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is designed to coordinate natural economic competition with regional cooperation, which is transforming the Asia-Pacific region into a single economic space. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Hu Jintao, as well as the other leaders, will visit Hanoi with this objective in mind. All of them have contributed to the region's economic growth, no matter whose side they were on in the war.

It is hard to predict if similar events will take place in Baghdad in 25 years or even in a decade. Nor is it known if U.S. veterans of this war will seek permanent residence in Iraq. Former U.S. soldiers are moving to Vietnam to have families there, or help American-Vietnamese businesses, or in some cases to provide charitable assistance to Vietnamese victims of the bombings and Agent Orange.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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