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Bush arrives in Vietnam for trade talks

Times Staff Writer

Six years ago today, Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit Hanoi and the first in more than three decades to visit Vietnam, closing a painful chapter in American diplomatic and military history.

When President Bush arrived today, he was shadowed by an issue that was politically difficult for him when he first ran for president, just as it was for Clinton: the question of military service during the Vietnam War. And there was new attention to an issue that is politically painful for him in 2006: whether the Iraq war is turning into a new generation’s equivalent of the torturous Vietnam conflict.

Bush flew here this morning after a one-day stop in Singapore, where he warned North Korea not to spread its nuclear technology to nations or terrorist groups, and said the United States’ partners in the region needed to recognize the threat that Pyongyang posed.

The president, speaking to government leaders and students at the National University of Singapore, said, “America’s position is clear: The transfer of nuclear weapons or materiel by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.

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“For the sake of peace, it is vital that the nations of this region send a message to North Korea that the proliferation of nuclear technology to hostile regimes or terrorist networks will not be tolerated.”

The audience was silent during his address and applauded politely when he was done.

Bush said he was committed to liberalized trade rules, despite what he noted were “the old temptations of isolationism and protectionism” in the United States.

He said the creation of a free-trade agreement among the 21 nations of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, whose summit this weekend has brought Bush to Vietnam, “deserves serious consideration.”

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Bush’s less-than-enthusiastic endorsement suggested he might be backing off a goal to which the Clinton administration had committed the United States.

Trade liberalization has met a resurgent skepticism in the United States and drew criticism in several congressional campaigns this fall.

In 1994, the economic forum, of which the U.S. is a member, called for “free and open trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific” by 2010 among developed nations, with developing nations following suit 10 years later.

A White House official said Bush still backed meeting the two deadlines, even though he used what the aide acknowledged was “softer” language to express the objective.

The summit is seen as Vietnam’s debut on the world stage -- as an economic engine in Southeast Asia and as a nation that has moved beyond the war. The communist government, however, still maintains strict one-party control, and dissidents say political freedom has yet to match the nation’s economic progress.

Bush had hoped to win Congress’ authorization normalizing trade relations with Vietnam before he arrived. But there were not enough votes this week to move the legislation through Congress.

Republican congressional leaders, who remain in charge during the lame-duck session, said they hoped to revisit the issue next month.

The question of whether Bush is leading the United States into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Iraq, which his critics increasingly argue is the case, has drawn sharp challenges from the president and his senior aides.

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At a news conference the day after U.S. voters delivered what was largely interpreted as a rebuke to the president’s Iraq policies, Bush said such an interpretation of the war was wrong.

He said that Iraq, “after the overthrow of the tyrant” Saddam Hussein, established a constitution and elected a unity government, “which is different from Vietnam” during and after the war. He said that the U.S. military was a volunteer force, not a draft-fed military, and that unlike in the Vietnam era, “the support for our troops is strong here in the United States.”

“I don’t think it is a parallel,” he said.

Nevertheless, in the Iraq war, as was true in the Vietnam conflict, the population is divided, experts and politicians are split over whether the Pentagon should deploy more troops or be given a deadline to start pulling them out, and the mounting death toll of U.S. troops has brought a political backlash against the administration.

In Vietnam, Bush plans to focus more on current problems and not on the past, including the politically fraught question from his first presidential campaign that resurfaced in 2004: whether he used his father’s clout to gain a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard to avoid being drafted at the height of the war.

On Saturday, Bush is scheduled to visit the U.S. military office in Hanoi, which is responsible for finding the remains of U.S. troops. It also investigates information about prisoners of war.

The United States has found no evidence that Americans are still being held as prisoners of war in Vietnam.

james.gerstenzang @latimes.com

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