Obama heads to Vietnam and Japan to confront the ghosts of old wars amid turmoil in modern ones

President Obama speaks in the Oval Office on Friday.
(Michael Reynolds / EPA)

For nearly eight years, President Obama has struggled to end wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Next week, he’ll finally succeed in closing chapters on two other ones instead – Vietnam and World War II.

Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima and will meet with survivors of the atomic bombings that ended World War II. He will also travel to Vietnam, to whose communist government he is considering selling more weapons, a sign of how the U.S.-Vietnam relationship has blossomed in the decades since the war there ended.

For the president who promised to end two wars only to watch them persist, the end points this week in Vietnam and Japan — decades in the making — show just how hard that is, and how long peace could ultimately take.

“We’ve seen the difficulty or inability to disengage from the war on terror, including in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. “And he has seen that these U.S. commitments to protect friends and allies can be long-standing commitments, as evidenced by our continued presence in South Korea and Japan and Germany.”


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Obama will pay heed to the past by promoting how far the alliances with Vietnam and Japan have come since the countries were bitter enemies of the U.S. He plans to highlight growing commercial ties in Vietnam, one of the 12 countries that are part of the massive Pacific Rim trade deal being negotiated. In Japan, where he will also meet with the heads of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, Obama’s visit to Hiroshima is an opportunity to revisit his efforts toward nuclear nonproliferation.

“The very fact that the United States is traveling to Japan, that it’s now one of our closest allies in the world, and Vietnam, which is an emerging partner of ours, demonstrates how you are able to move beyond difficult history,” said White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes.

But even as Obama departs Saturday for Hanoi, instability in the Middle East and the terrorist threat to the West arising from it have once again emerged, providing a timely reminder of the region’s hold on the president. Investigators are considering the possibility that the EgyptAir flight that crashed on its way from Paris to Cairo on Thursday was the target of a terrorist plot.

Terrorism has been a main concern at previous G7 summits, and world leaders are once again expected to talk about their shared interest in defeating Islamic State, ending the devastating war in Syria and stemming the flow of refugees from the troubled Middle East.

Obama took office with hopes of removing combat troops from Iraq. Though the White House says the 5,500 military personnel who remain in Iraq and Syria don’t carry that label, Obama’s former Defense secretary, Robert Gates, said this week that the troops are seeing so much action and danger that they are clearly “in combat.”

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Further underscoring the difficultly of U.S. withdrawal is the growing instability in Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters recently managed to take control of the city of Kunduz. Obama has abandoned a 2012 plan to withdraw by 2016 and instead will leave 5,000 combat troops in Afghanistan when he vacates the Oval Office.

“We cannot just leave, because the conditions don’t allow it,” acknowledged Kurt Campbell, who as assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2009 to 2013 was a key architect of Obama’s rebalance of resources toward Asia. “The key challenge is finding the hours, being completely determined over a period of years about looking to Asia and to the future.”

“That’s what the president has to do – find the time to balance out this essential imbalance in the energy we spend in the Middle East and the energy we spend elsewhere,” he said.

Obama’s trip starting Sunday, a blend of trade talk, diplomacy and history, is designed to do just that.

He’ll meet with leaders of the communist government in Vietnam as well as political dissidents, before giving an address in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, to mark the end of the Vietnam War 41 years after the city fell to the North Vietnamese.

He’ll pitch the Pacific trade deal he is trying to push through Congress by meeting with entrepreneurs and business leaders in Vietnam, Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economy. If American businesses can’t more fully embrace Vietnam’s burgeoning middle class, his aides argue, China or others will.

Obama may encounter some anti-American sentiment in Japan, where the arrest of an American suspected of killing a woman who disappeared last month has sparked outrage. Police say he’s also suspected in her death but have not charged him.

On his final day in Japan, Obama will go to the city of Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb used in war in 1945. That bomb, and another dropped on Nagasaki three days later, killed at least 129,000 people and poisoned a generation with radiation.

Obama will pay tribute to the suffering and loss of war, aides say, though he won’t apologize for the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he views as having been necessary to end the war and save the world from tyranny.

At the time, President Truman made a decision he believed was “consistent with our national security priorities,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in explaining Obama’s refusal to apologize. “He believed that lives on both sides of the conflict could be saved by dropping the bomb.”

Obama has offered a similar defense of his own decision to use armed drones in the fight against terrorists in the Middle East.

More than that, though, he has spoken admiringly of Truman’s commitment to a new post-war order in which nations of the world worked together – the very kind of shift he has sought to enable the world to fight off crisis while still taking steps toward progress.

That new order was a marriage of “idealism to hardheaded realism, an acceptance of America’s power with a humility regarding America’s ability to control events around the world,” Obama wrote in his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope.”

But the lessons of the 20th century wars only go so far, said Campbell. They don’t necessarily provide a clear pathway for today’s leaders.

“The conditions are just so different, and so dramatically dissimilar,” said Campbell, author of the forthcoming book “The Pivot: America’s Rediscovery of the Asia-Pacific Century.”

“What happens in the Middle East going forward, I just don’t know,” Campbell said. “People will say it’s a 30-year recovery, but how does it work? It’s impossible to say.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow @cparsons for news about the White House.


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9:55 a.m.: This story was updated with details of an American arrested in Japan in connection with a woman’s death.

This story was originally published at 7:24 a.m.