Thirty years after the end of a war that divided the United States and ravaged his own country, Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai yesterday became the first leader of his nation to visit the White House and won promises from President Bush to bolster economic and military ties between the former enemies.
With hundreds of Vietnam War veterans and pro-democracy protesters rallying outside the White House gates, Bush announced plans to visit Vietnam next year and support Vietnam's admission to the World Trade Organization, a big victory for Khai.
"This event, in itself, shows that Vietnam-U.S. relations have in fact entered a new stage of development," said Khai, the highest-ranking Vietnamese official to visit the White House since the Communists won the war in 1975. "I'm fully confident that my visit to America this time will help uplift the relationship between our two countries to a new height."
Disagreements remain. In a private meeting, Bush pushed Khai to do more to promote human rights and religious freedom in a country accused of stifling dissenting voices and people of faith, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. At a joint appearance with Bush, Khai attributed the differences to "the different conditions that we have, the different histories and cultures."
The protesters offered a much harsher assessment of Khai's Vietnam, waving signs saying, "Stop Religious Repression." In a full-page ad that ran in yesterday's Washington Post, a group called a Call for Democracy accused the ruling government of adhering to an "obsolescent Communist ideology" that smothers freedom.
Bush, in brief remarks to reporters, said the two leaders signed a "landmark agreement that will make it easier for people to worship freely in Vietnam." The president, whose stateside service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War was an issue in the 2004 election, praised Khai for his government's effort to help find the remains of more than 520 U.S. soldiers who were killed in Vietnam and never found.
"It's very comforting to many families here in America to understand that the government is providing information to help close a sad chapter in their lives," Bush said. Since 1988, Vietnam has helped identify the remains of about 500 U.S. service members missing since the war. More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam.
The bitter passions once stoked by Vietnam have faded, as presidents and members of Congress have embraced trade and closer military relations. In a morning appearance on NBC's "Today" show, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a prisoner of war for nearly six years, struck an ambivalent note -- praising Vietnam's economic progress but remaining skeptical about Vietnam's treatment of its own people. "They have taken steps," he said, but "we expect progress toward democratic freedom, human rights, elections and all the trappings of democracy."
Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) told the Associated Press he also has doubts. He called Khai a "master of deception" and said he would hold hearings to determine whether the agreement on religious freedom was being implemented.
Khai, whose tour of the United States took him from Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates's office in Redmond, Wash., to the White House and later the Pentagon for talks with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, was on a mission to promote Vietnam's fast-growing economy and desire to forge closer ties with the United States. "We have a population of 80 million people, which means a huge market for American businesses," Khai said.
A decade after diplomatic ties were restored by President Bill Clinton, U.S.-Vietnam trade is booming to the tune of $6.4 billion in 2004. Vietnam is striving to join the WTO at the next ministerial meeting, in December in Hong Kong.
Bush said he will visit Vietnam in 2006 when it hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum's annual summit, where world trade will be high on the agenda. In a nod to Bush, Khai signaled in advance of yesterday's meeting plans to provide more intelligence on possible terrorists and send military officers to the United States for training. In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Khai, 71, said intelligence-sharing efforts would include the creation of new positions at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington.
Vietnam was on Bush's agenda at a time when some voices in both parties are warning that the lessons of the war there remain relevant elsewhere -- in Iraq. McCain and others have said one lesson of Vietnam is to never lose the support of the public by making the situation sound better than it is during armed conflict.
Several lawmakers have accused Bush of misleading the public about the challenges in Iraq, including a persistent and deadly insurgency and difficulties creating a viable Iraqi military that will allow U.S. soldiers to one day pull out.
At a private lunch at the White House, two GOP senators pressed Bush to better explain recruitment problems and the struggles ahead, said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). The message, Kyl said, was that Bush should "not let people come to believe this is easier than it is." Bush said he agreed and told the senators he would meet with three generals this week to get a detailed briefing on progress in Iraq in preparation for a major speech next week.
McClellan, speaking to reporters while Bush was hosting the lunch a few rooms away, said the president agrees with Vice President Cheney's recent assessment that the insurgency is in its "last throes."