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It is time for your Vietnam history lesson, George!

BY MARY RIDDELL / 24 November 2006

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 makes Wall Street look like a not-for-profit ashram.

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: 100,000 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. 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 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.

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 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. Talking to enemies produces odd alchemies. Diplomacy and shifting alliances can 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 visited Pakistan and 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.

Mary Riddel is an Observer columnist. She can be reached at mary.riddell@observer.co.uk
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