Nearly 18 months ago, Orange County conservative hard-linerswere chagrined when Washington lifted the 20-year trade embargo with Vietnam. There was little critics could do then except ridicule the move as shortsighted.
Now, with Tuesday’s announcement that the United States would normalize relations with the Communist regime that handed it a humiliating defeat two decades ago, Orange County politicians once again find themselves angered--and with seemingly little choice in the matter.
On Wednesday, following President Clinton’s proclamation that the move would heal the wounds of the Vietnam War, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) said he will pursue a bill co-sponsored with House International Relations Chairman Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) to prohibit funding for an American embassy in Hanoi.
“It will appear to be political, but it’s the honorable thing to do,” Dornan said of the fight to cut off funds. “Clinton hasn’t healed the wounds. He’s ripped off every last scab and he’s stuck his hand in the wounds and gouged around.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) also criticized Clinton’s call to “move forward on an issue that has separated Americans from one another” for so many years.
“That’s a bunch of liberal clap trap. That’s a bunch of words with no meaning,” Rohrabacher said.
Clinton’s few political allies in Orange County predictably backed him. Jim Toledano, an Irvine attorney who chairs the Orange County Democratic Party, said the overture is “exactly correct.” It is time to move on “and heal the best we can . . . no matter how we have suffered,” he said.
“It’s obviously a divisive issue. Obviously, if in fact you lost your livelihood or perhaps your family 20 years ago, you have a lot of wounds that have not healed and may never heal,” Toledano said. “But we made peace with the Germans rather soon after a perfectly horrible war, after incredible atrocities were committed and tens of thousands of Americans were killed. And the same thing happened with Japan.”
But like Dornan and Rohrabacher, the remaining four members of the Orange County congressional delegation and other local political leaders do not favor restoration of diplomatic relations with Vietnam, even though it could help California businesses seeking to invest overseas.
Orange County delegation members said Vietnam has not fully accounted for the 1,600 American military personnel missing since the war, has the lowest score by Amnesty International in the area of human rights, and has not moved toward democracy. They disagree with Clinton’s assertion that full diplomatic ties would speed resolution of these issues.
As chairman of the House GOP Policy Committee, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) on Tuesday drafted a statement to be endorsed by House Republicans that denounces Clinton’s new policy.
“The President has found another way to reward a Communist competitor while continuing to give the cold shoulder to America’s friends on human rights issues,” Cox said.
He offered Taiwan as an example of a nation that has received the “cold shoulder” from the United States in order to court favor with China. But the policy, he contends, has not worked.
The timing of the announcement on Vietnam could not have been worse, Cox added, because the United States appears to be acquiescing on human rights demands just days after the Chinese government confirmed that it is holding Harry Wu, a Chinese-born U.S. citizen on espionage charges.
“As part of the overall Asia policy, [Clinton] is sending wrong signals,” Cox said. Diplomatic relations “is the strongest leverage that the U.S. will ever have vis-a-vis the Communist government of Vietnam. And the question is ‘Have we negotiated well?’ And the answer is, ‘Not much at all.’ ”
Rep. Jay C. Kim (R-Diamond Bar) complained that Vietnam had made little progress in accounting for POWs and MIAs since the trade embargo was lifted last year, even though Clinton had said that condition would have to be met before fully reopening ties with Vietnam.
“This is not progress. So why should we provide the Vietnamese with yet another important reward before they fulfilled their side of the first bargain?” Kim said in a written statement. “We actually had more unilateral accounting before Clinton lifted the embargo or offered better diplomatic ties.”
Rohrabacher and Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) are members of the House International Relations Committee that will meet today to consider blocking funding for the diplomatic effort with Vietnam.
Rohrabacher contended that the “horrendous motive” behind the pro-Vietnam policy is business interests.
“Human rights is not even on [Clinton’s] radar scope. It has no priority from this President,” Rohrabacher said.
Just four months ago, Royce added, the International Relations committee heard a U.S. State Department official complain that Vietnam had “a very long way to go” on the human rights issue before the Clinton Administration could consider restoring diplomatic relations.
“It was our hope that we would be able to use this as leverage” in negotiations with Vietnam, Royce said. “Instead, this Administration has proven incapable of exercising effective leverage for political freedoms and human rights.”
Royce said Democrats and Republicans could support loosening the grip on the Communist regime in Hanoi if certain religious, cultural and press freedom guarantees could be tied to the agreement. But that does not seem likely to happen now.
Said Royce: “The Administration seems deaf to the pleas of the human rights activists and to members of both parties who suggested that it look objectively at what’s going on” in Vietnam.
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) also opposes the new Clinton policy toward Vietnam but could not be reached for comment.
Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), a former major in the Marine Corps and a Vietnam War veteran, called the Clinton Administration decision “ridiculous.” Conroy had introduced a resolution in the state Assembly in May asking the Clinton Administration to withhold establishing relations with Vietnam “until they clean up their act.”
“I think Vietnam probably has the world’s worst human rights record and I don’t think we should do anything to help out a nation of that nature,” said Conroy, who flew reconnaissance planes during the war.
Alluding to reports from international human rights groups that Vietnam continues to hold political prisoners, Conroy said: “If anyone thinks the current Vietnamese government has mellowed, they’re wrong. If anything they have gotten meaner. They are still torturing and imprisoning their own people.”
Times staff writer Len Hall contributed to this report.