To this day, Vietnam is ruled by one of the world's most repressive and dictatorial regimes.
I HAVE LONG thought that John Kerry is wrong on Vietnam. I don't mean wrong 30 years ago, when, as a decorated combat veteran, he returned from Vietnam and became a leading antiwar activist. I mean wrong in the years since, when he has been, with John McCain, the Senate's foremost advocate of normalized relations with Vietnam.
There are two objections to treating Vietnam as a normal trade and diplomatic partner. The first is that the government in Hanoi — the Communist Party — is the same ruthless tyranny that caused so much bloodshed a generation ago. The regime that plunged Vietnam into war, that killed 50,000 Americans, rules Vietnam to this day.
Normal relations with a former enemy are not unusual. The United States long ago normalized its ties to Germany, Italy, and Japan, the Axis powers of World War II. But it did so only after the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Tojo dictatorship were defeated and deposed. Vietnam, by contrast, has never been de-Nazified. There is no difference between the power in Hanoi today and the one that ruled when US soldiers were being tortured in the Hanoi Hilton.
That might not matter if the Vietnamese Communist Party had metamorphosed by now into something decent and enlightened. It hasn't. Vietnam remains a land of repression and persecution. On a scale of 1 (most free) to 7 (most unfree), Freedom House, the storied human rights monitor, rates it a 6.5. In its latest report on human rights worldwide, the State Department notes that Vietnam's "poor human rights record worsened" last year and the government"continued to commit numerous, serious abuses," from crushing ethnic minorities to tormenting religious believers. Granted, there are other countries whose atrocious human rights records have not barred normal relations with the United States. China and Saudi Arabia are two prominent examples. But the crimes ad cruelties of those governments are often denounced in this country, and the nature of our relations with them continues to be a subject of debate.
Kerry and McCain are not the first members of Congress to make the diplomatic rehabilitation of a despicable regime their personal crusade. A "Cuba working group" on Capitol Hill has undertaken something similar for the dictator in Havana. But Castro never invaded a US ally or excruciated American POWs.
Kerry and McCain worked passionately for the normalization of US-Vietnam ties. Why don't they work with equal passion to bring freedom and justice to Vietnam's people? Why do they never cry out against Hanoi's brutality?
They more than most know how steep a price Americans paid in the struggle to hold that brutality in check. I had planned to write about this last fall, after Kerry and McCain were honored at a gala dinner by the World Affairs Council for their role in normalizing US-Vietnamese relations. I was going to point out that just a few days earlier, a leader of Vietnam's independent Buddhist church had immolated himself in Danang to protest the government's denial of religious freedom. I was going to urge Kerry, who chairs the Senate's East Asia subcommittee, to take the lead in moving the Vietnam Human Rights Bill through the Senate. That bill, which would link non-humanitarian aid to progress on human rights, had just passed the House, 410-1.
But the dinner took place on Sept. 10, and the next day there were more pressing matters to write about.
Almost a year later, the issue hasn't gone away. Normalization is now a done deal, yet Kerry still says very little about human rights in Vietnam. Far from taking the lead on the Vietnam Human Rights Bill, he has prevented it from coming to a vote. He claims that making an issue of Hanoi's repression would be counterproductive. "Freedom and democracy in that country will continue to come through engagement," he says, "not through symbolic self-defeating acts in the United States." Any sanctions — even the mild slap on the wrist allowed by this bill - would "strengthen the hand of Vietnamese hardliners" and set back human rights.
But Kerry has it backward. By refusing to make an issue of Vietnam's denial of human rights, he encourages the despots to continue denying them. Why should they have second thoughts about jailing people for their beliefs or blocking free elections if a key member of the US Senate is ensuring that there will be no penalties for doing so?
On the Web site of its Washington Embassy, Vietnam insists that "the practicing of human rights is mere internal affairs of each country." Does Kerry believe that? If not, he should say so, loudly and clearly. Silence in the face of tyranny is unseemly — especially in one who dreams of becoming the leader of the Free World.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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