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Clinton's Vietnam Visit Called 'Home Run'

Policy: Popular enthusiasm in face of Communist officials' reticence is testament to president's impact.


HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — While his own constituents were caught up in a frenetic domestic drama over his successor, Bill Clinton returned Monday almost unnoticed from scoring one of the most important--and unexpected--successes of his presidency halfway around the world, in Vietnam.

Vietnam's government provided limited advance notice of his visit and terse coverage by state-controlled media after he arrived, yet Clinton received the kind of public adulation from tens of thousands normally associated with pop idols. On signs and in shouts for his attention, the Vietnamese clamored in ever growing numbers to get close to a man they called simply "Bill."

The president and his senior aides were openly taken aback by the public reaction, with Clinton describing various aspects of his visit as "overwhelming," "profoundly moving" and "astonishing."

In the process, the president set an important precedent for his successor in 21st century diplomacy: Constructive engagement with long-standing enemies works.

"Sanctions and trade and investment embargoes--all of those things have not delivered much in places like Cuba, Iran and Iraq. But as we saw in Vietnam, engagement has delivered. And it certainly costs less to American taxpayers than an embargo," said Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

Over the past eight years--and despite the controversy over the president's position on the Vietnam War three decades earlier--the Clinton administration gradually but deliberately lifted the trade embargo in 1994, opened diplomatic relations in 1995 and negotiated a U.S.-Vietnamese trade agreement in 1999.

The thaw led Vietnam to approach Clinton exactly a year ago about becoming the first American president to visit Vietnam in the postwar era.

North Korea Could Be Next

"It would have been easy for him to say, 'Vietnam is just one of those issues I don't want to deal with.' But instead, he picked up the bat and swung--and hit a home run right out of the park," said Thomas Vallely, a Vietnam veteran and former Massachusetts legislator who now heads a Harvard University development project in Vietnam.

The administration may be on the verge of reaping similar rewards in North Korea, arguably the most feared of what until recently the U.S. called "rogue states." Again, it has been a phased effort beginning with an agreement to dismantle a nuclear energy program in 1994 that might have been used to produce nuclear weapons.

Last month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the first ranking U.S. official to visit Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to discuss terms that would limit the North's ballistic missile program. Clinton is now considering a trip before he leaves office to negotiate a formal agreement.

"Even after such a short time and such limited engagement, there's been a diffusion of the threat. We're now less jittery about the dangers North Korea presents," said Naim, the editor.

Engagement is especially effective with a twist: going around the government directly to the people.

"Clinton had such an impact because, in the new age of global communications, it's easier to constructively engage society rather than its leadership," said Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"And that has implications for how a president uses the new global pulpit in the future, not only in Vietnam. It shows that there's great value when a president stands firmly for certain values and speaks out purposefully but is available for dialogue."

The second effect of Clinton's visit appears to be an intensified debate inside Vietnam about the pace and direction of change. The president left in his wake a Communist leadership scrambling to counter both his message and popularity.

Just hours after the president departed, an official paper published a front-page article Monday by Lt. Gen. Le Van Dung, chief of staff of the Vietnam People's Army, pledging to "crush" the threat posed by "peaceful evolution," code words for pro-democracy political reforms.

"Nowadays, hostile forces are fighting against us actively to sabotage socialism and the leading role of the Communist Party of Vietnam," he wrote in the Vietnamese-language People's Army.

He also warned that the military has a special duty "to give constant direction to the entire army and the entire people to struggle to make sure the peaceful evolution plots of the hostile forces fail."

Blunt Talk From Communist Officials

As the public turnout to see Clinton mushroomed almost by the hour, the leadership also took what U.S. officials considered the unusual and undiplomatic step of publishing a blunt admonition to the American president by Le Kha Phieu, secretary-general of the Communist Party, delivered in a private meeting Saturday.

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