State Department Gets President to Abandon Democracy Pledge for Vietnam

“It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” These powerful words, uttered by President George W. Bush in his second inaugural speech, have inspired millions of pro-democracy activists in places such as Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon. However, there is one country where the President is abandoning his pledge: Vietnam.

Next week, President Bush will be meeting Vietnam’s Communist Prime Minister Phan Van Khai for talks at the White House. The event is being hailed by Hanoi as another crucial step in the normalization of relations between the two countries. However, the meeting represents a betrayal by President Bush not only of his foreign policy aims, but of American veterans who fought and died in Vietnam.

The current regime in Hanoi is one of the world’s last communist autocracies, along with North Korea, Cuba and China. Vietnam continues to be a one-party Leninist state, which tramples on human rights and the religious freedoms of it citizens. Numerous political dissidents have been imprisoned. Catholic priests, Protestant pastors and Buddhist monks are routinely tortured and prohibited from practicing their faith.

Human Rights Watch reports that Vietnamese security forces have launched a vicious crackdown against Christian Montagnards, an indigenous hill people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Montagnard men have gone into hiding for fear of being jailed or killed, while women and children have been beaten during government-backed raids. HRW says that Vietnamese officials are waging a campaign to compel the Montagnards to renounce their faith. In particular, those that are targeted tend to be followers of “Dega Christianity,” an unsanctioned form of evangelical Christianity that rejects state control of organized religion.

Yet the State Department insists that Mr. Khai still be given an official audience with President Bush—even though other notorious thugs, such as former Palestinian strongman Yasser Arafat, have not been given this kind of recognition. A major reason is trade. The United States is now Vietnam’s largest export market, totaling over $5 billion. Hanoi is imitating China’s model of “Market Leninism,” fusing capitalist reforms with authoritarian rule. U.S. businesses are now clamoring for greater access to Vietnam’s growing private sector. Therefore, the administration is hoping to forge closer ties with Hanoi. It is even considering backing Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

The famous British statesman, William Gladstone, perceptively once said that “what is morally wrong can never be politically right.” This is the case with Washington’s approach to Vietnam. The communist authorities are not interested in genuine reform; they simply want to use America’s good will and more importantly, American money to help maintain their grip on power.

This is the same communist regime that fought a war against the United States, in which nearly 60,000 Americans lost their lives to save Vietnam from totalitarianism. This is the same regime that, since America left Vietnam in 1975, has slaughtered millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians; expelled countless ethnic Chinese and Hmong from their ancestral lands; sent hundreds of thousands into slave labor camps; waged wars of aggression against Cambodia and Laos; and subjected an entire generation to the miseries of Marxist rule.

It has been over 30 years since the communist takeover of Vietnam. Yet it is remarkable how little the country has changed since U.S. forces pulled out. Vietnam remains mired in poverty, corruption and government repression. The country’s per capita income is little more than one-tenth that of nearby Thailand.

By agreeing to meet with Mr. Khai, President Bush is providing legitimacy to a scandal-ridden and brutal government. It is another betrayal of the oppressed people of Vietnam.

For decades, the Vietnamese communists have succeeded in duping U.S. diplomats—from supposed “peace” talks during the war to the status of American POWs to Hanoi’s current claims of liberalization. Mr. Khai’s communists are not seeking real reconciliation with Washington or real political and religious pluralism at home. Rather, they remain what they have always been: radical, anti-American leftists who are using the United States to further their ideological agenda.

President Bush should not be meeting with Mr. Khai or any Vietnamese government leader until Vietnam embraces democracy and human rights. Such a policy honors America, struggling Vietnamese democrats and especially, those Americans who gave their lives for a better, freer and more prosperous Vietnam.