Thursday, June 16, 2005

No, this is not a post about the Texas Air National Guard or the how the Vietnam War continues to haunt the national political psyche but of democracy and our national interests.

Bruce Kesler, a columnist for the Augusta-Free Press alerted me to the underreported fact that Phan Van Khai, the Prime Minister of Vietnam, will be visiting the United States and meeting with President Bush- a key step in an increasingly warm relationship between Washington and Hanoi. The Prime Minister does not come empty-handed but instead brings with him a jet deal for Boeing that will net the corporation a cool half billion dollars

It is easy to see why Vietnam would want to pursue closer ties with its former foe, the United States. Despite a rising trade with America worth $ 6 billion, Vietnam is only a stone's throw from becoming a mendicant nation, hobbled by a socialist economy and the costs of oppressing their own people and Vietnam's two, even poorer, Indochinese satellites. The Soviet-made equipment of the Vietnamese military is outdated and growing older even as Hanoi nervously watches China's rising wealth and armed might. Thirty years after the fall of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh's Leninist revolution is looking more like the senile Communism of Konstantin Chernenko.

What is harder to see is what Vietnam has to offer the Bush administration, whose good graces it needs to win in order to get into the WTO and for a strategic hedge against Chinese hegemony. Granted, Vietnam has nice beaches, a cheap and docile work force and a potentially good naval base but if really we need a neo-Stalinist dictatorship for that, well, Cuba is about 11,900 miles closer.

Freedom House rates the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as one of the world's worst regimes - up there with such cannibalistic luminaries as North Korea, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Burma,Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. Foreign Policy magazine has just classified Vietnam as a " borderline" failed state ( print article is not yet online). The U.S. Department of State details a human rights record for Vietnam that looks positive only in comparison with democidal regimes like North Korea or the Sudan. Human Rights Watch reports on significant persecution of the Montagnards , a mountain tribe once allied with the United States and the repression of religious believers of all stripes is exceeded only by that directed toward political dissent. Vietnam has little to sell the United States and its rulers are little better than an odious cabal of ideological gangsters who stay in power by the same methods used by Saddam Hussein.

Am I arguing for a policy of non-intercourse ? No, I'm arguing that the United States has the strongest possible hand to attach a human rights price tag to the goodies of connectivity that Hanoi desperately needs. President Bush should raise his voice on democracy and liberty with at least as much emphasis to Van Khai as he did to Vladmir Putin. After all, we actually need decent relations with Russia to further American security but Vietnam is so strategically unimportant that if it slid into the South China Sea it might be a good month before the American media even noticed.

The cookies given out to Vietnam by the administration and the U.S. Congress should be meaningful and should be given promptly - after Vietnam demonstrates concessions. To use a Kissingerian term, there should be " linkage" between rewards and behavior. We don't need them, they need us and the squealing of Fortune 500 American corporations whose lobbyists will be ( or are) clogging the halls of Congress in opposition will be a good sign that U.S. policy is on the right moral track.

Right now, there are men and women in camps and clammy cells in Hanoi who have committed no crime as we reckon it and who are - like the Zeks of the former Soviet Gulag once were - without any hope. President Bush needs to speak for them by telling Vietnam's rulers that their admission price to the circle of civilized nations is walking away from the practices of barbarism.
From a real politics perspective, we need Vietnam to balance against China. Kissinger himself secretly bombed North Vietnam while secretly (and duplicitiously) complaining that Nixon was mad and that the Dr. himself would never approve of such crazy ideas.

So why not embrace both China and Vietnam?

Last, to crib a line from Dr. Barnett, direction may be more important than speed. Vietnam is making steady progress. Russia is steadily backsliding. That puts Vietnam in a much better light than Russia, and paints Van Khai much kinder than Putin.

-Dan tdaxp
Direction is often more important, I agree. "Doi moi" seemed to peter out for a while so you have to wonder ( I'm waaaaay out of my area of experise here with modern SEA) if this trip is more " Horizons" or more " Four modernizations/ Perestroika/Glasnost".

If it's the latter larger rewards will hurry the Viets down the road they are already heading. If it's a sham they will balk at liberalization regardless of the rewards we hold out.
Great concerns Mark.

Ultimately, we have to be offering these reformable regimes "soft landings" for their political leadership like in Beijing, will the probably result will be a bought-off Communist elite.

(Maybe in 20 years, similar to Georgia's rose revolution -- where the former President had a very nice mansion given to him, a very generous sallary, making him very pro-Government...)

It's designed to be part of a carrot-carrot strategy, where Vietnam can cash in both on self help (the direct rewards of openness) and rent seaking (American friendship).

-Dan tdaxp
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