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Western Press Review: From Vietnam To Florida

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 20 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Our selection of Western press commentary today ranges across three continents: Asia, Europe, and North America. Analysts assess President Bill Clinton's historic visit over the weekend to Vietnam, where the U.S. fought -- and lost -- a traumatic war a quarter of a century ago. They continue to discuss the still uncertain outcome of the U.S. presidential election, due to be strongly influenced today by a decision on recounting contested ballots by the Supreme Court of Florida, the state whose electoral votes will almost certainly determine the winner. There are also comments on Yugoslavia and British Prime Minster Tony Blair's scheduled trip to Moscow tomorrow.


Three U.S. dailies comment on Clinton's Vietnam trip. In an editorial, the Boston Globe writes: "President Clinton has demonstrated during his path-breaking visit to Vietnam the same uncanny aptitude for charming an apprehensive audience that he displayed in earlier voyages to China and India." The paper goes to say: "Because of the disasters of America's war in Vietnam more than [25 years] ago, Mr. Clinton's mission to Hanoi has been his most daunting."

The editorial notes that, "peaceably, rhetorically, Mr. Clinton intervened in Vietnam's great internal debate -- whether to open the country to foreign capital and globalization or to preserve the stifling controls of the communist system that has impoverished North Korea, Laos and Cuba. Mr. Clinton has already done his part for prosperity in America. If Hanoi heeds his advice, he may be remembered as the president who did the most to undue communism in Vietnam."


In a news analysis for the New York Times, David Sanger expands on the same theme: Clinton, he says, threw "himself into the center of Vietnam's current struggle: the battle within a divided government [about] how fast and how far to open the country to the capitalist, democratic forces it thought it had defeated." Writing from Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon), Sanger continues: "Mr. Clinton was here to celebrate reconciliation, of course. But at every turn, he argued that the Communist government could not overcome the forces of global economic integration the way it drove the United States out of this city a quarter-century ago. Vietnam's plans to flourish economically, he said, will work only if Hanoi allows free travel, embraces the Internet and gradually opens its political system. Clearly," the analyst adds, "many in the streets seemed to get the message."

"But," Sanger notes, "Mr. Clinton hardly won the hearts and minds of Vietnam's deeply conflicted leadership. In a remarkable moment at the Communist Party headquarters in Hanoi on Saturday," he says, "Mr. Clinton found himself in what he later called a 'spirited' exchange with the country's leading hard-liner, Le Kha Phieu, the Communist Party chief and the most influential member of the Vietnamese leadership.

"Mr. [Phieu,]" Sanger writes, "had watched Mr. Clinton's nationally broadcast speech to students and had seen the reception the president was getting on the streets, and clearly he was fed up. 'We have seen the collapse of the USSR,' Mr. Phieu said. And yet, he told the president, according to two American participants in the meeting, 'We are still on our feet -- we have reaffirmed socialism.' And," Sanger adds, "Mr. Phieu went on to describe how Vietnam would find its own way, keeping to its principles, dividing the economy into state sectors, private sectors and foreign sectors, and keeping ideology at the center of society."


In an analysis for the Washington Post, also written from Ho Chi Minh City, correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran says: "President Clinton's historic journey to Vietnam ultimately turned into a visit to two very different countries, one run by Communist Party stalwarts loath to change their ways and another teeming with restless young people yearning for a more open economy and political system." But he, too, adds: "Clinton's repeated calls for Vietnam to embrace free markets and political reforms, voiced in public speeches and private meetings, received a generally indifferent response from this nation's senior leaders, who remain deeply suspicious of American influence."

Chandrasekaran goes on to say: "Among the 60 percent of the population born after the end of what the Vietnamese call the American War, Clinton's exhortations were right on point. Fans of MTV and fluent with e-mail, many members of the younger generation say they are frustrated by the country's economic and political stagnation." The analyst says further: "The ideological conflict between old and young Vietnam likely will be one of the country's defining issues for the foreseeable future, suggesting that fundamental economic and political changes are a long way off."


Among today's batch of commentary on the still unsettled U.S. presidential election, Britain's Financial Times criticizes the behavior of supporters of both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore in the two weeks since the vote took place. In an editorial, the paper writes: "Leadership is not the fulfillment of a personal ambition to lead. For almost two weeks, [both candidates] have done their best impressions of presidential behavior. They have performed soothing camera cameos, putting a lofty distance between themselves and the hot struggling of [their cohorts]."

"Meanwhile," the paper says, "their staff, their lawyers and the hoary hangers-on have exchanged insults and pushed the emotional and electoral rhetoric almost to the point of no return. The country's political dialect is now dominated by the pejoratives of partisanship, for which both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore must take full responsibility."

The editorial goes on: "Given the wrangling and the shenanigans, the U.S. public has shown admirable patience with its politicians. But that tolerance has limits and will quickly diminish if the vote count continues for a couple more weeks and if the volume of the insults is turned a little louder each day." It concludes: "Both candidates should intervene in the counting -- but only to impose more discipline on their representatives. And both must be aware that the acceptance address of the eventual winner will be far less important to the country than the concession speech of the loser."


The Washington Post's editorial also deals with what it calls "the right way to lose" the election. The paper writes: "In this [electoral] crisis, the two candidates have chosen to present contrasting styles. Al Gore's people have shown us their man at his dining room table -- command central -- firing off phone calls and e-mails, attentive to every detail. Mr. Bush is depicted at the ranch, chucking balls for his dog, letting his team sweat the small issues. You sometimes get the sense that Mr. Bush, drafted almost unexpectedly for this role, would be just as happy if it all ended and he could go back to his normal Austin life. Mr. Gore, preparing for this role since childhood, instead gives the sense of having nothing to go back to."

The editorial says further: "There's no ideal way out of this, given the closeness of the election, [and] both candidates ought to recognize that. Their certain belief in their victory may be necessary to carry them through these grueling days," the paper adds, "but at some point it becomes unhelpful to the country." Concretely, it argues, " the Bush camp would do better to acknowledge that hand counts are a legitimate part of U.S. elections, in Texas and almost everywhere else, instead of branding them inevitably corrupt. The Gore camp ought to acknowledge the problem inherent in manually counting only in three populous jurisdictions that Mr. Gore carried."

"Each candidate, in his own way, is focused now on winning," the paper sums up. "As that [prospect] recedes yet again, he ought to be thinking, too, of preparing himself -- and more importantly, his followers -- for losing, losing in a manner that allows the winner to be accepted as a legitimate leader and encourages the other side to stay constructively engaged in the democratic enterprise."


Turning to Yugoslavia, French analyst Dominique Moisi says there is a "clear need for ambiguous [Western] diplomacy" toward Yugoslavia. In a commentary in the Financial Times, he argues: Yugoslavia cannot be put together again, nor can it fragment into nation states. The West," he says, "should aim for something in between." Moisi says that "the West should avoid two dangerous illusions. The first to image that [Vojislav] Kostunica's rise to power is a sign that the old Yugoslavia can be rebuilt." He goes on: "Tito's Yugoslavia is dead. [And] even in its smaller version, including only Montenegro and Serbia, Yugoslavia cannot be reconstituted,:

"The second illusion," Moisi goes on, "is to see the complete and total independence of Kosovo -- and consequently Montenegro -- as the only, and the best, alternative for the region. He asks whether "the international community can accept the multiplication of nations states barely able to survive on their own?"

"To reconcile these facts," the commentator advises that "the West's policy toward the Balkans should be one of 'constructive ambiguity.'" That policy, he adds, should based on two fundamental principles: the implantation of democracy and the rule of law in the region, and the insistence on what Moisi calls "the idea of justice. [Without] justice," he says, "peace and reconciliation will always remain fragile."


Finally, a commentary by Michael Binyon in Britain's Times daily deals with the visit to Moscow by Prime Minister Tony Blair. Binyon writes: "When Tony Blair sweeps into the Kremlin tomorrow (Tuesday) morning, he will find a slight, determined man who is icily confident that after eight months in office he is beginning to put his stamp on the country. Vladimir Putin," Binyon argues, "has already begun to dismantle the wilder legacy of the Yeltsin years, imposing authority where there was license, reform where there was drift and government control where there was freedom of expression. Most Russians," he adds, "are pleased with the result."

The commentary continues: "Whether or not Mr. Putin is doing well, however, depends almost entirely on whom one asks. Beneath the general popularity ratings, there is sharp disagreement over a leader who, to most Russians, is still enigmatic, unknown and unpredictable." It says further: "Part of his popularity is undoubtedly due to the general sense of stability and order that is slowly returning to Russia. Part is due to the easing of Russia's chronic economic crisis, alleviated by the rise in global oil prices that has brought a bonanza into the Kremlin's coffers."

Binyon also says: "Bureaucrats, government officials, civil servants and all those who had steady jobs were increasingly bewildered by the stop-go capriciousness of [former president Boris] Yeltsin's reforms, by the sense of drift and by the unscrupulousness of the new rich who merged business with politics to create an oligarchy from which most Russians felt excluded. Mr. Putin, they believe, will restore 'poryadok' -- order." These people, he adds, "do not see a return to communism -- almost every Russian now believes that impossible -- but to a style of administration where orders come from the top, authority is unquestioned and the pyramid of government is not challenged by racketeers and corruption."

"There is one influential class that is far from happy," Binyon allows. "The liberal intelligentsia is appalled by what it sneeringly calls the triumph of the old KGB. It is alarmed at attempts to control the press, censor criticism and restore the president and his government to the untouchable positions they enjoyed under communism. The liberals care passionately about human rights, religious freedom, police accountability and local liberties -- and see them all being curtailed in the name of order."

He adds: "Many [in this group] oppose the war in Chechnya and believe that both the [State] Duma and the public have now been cowed into accepting the government version of the conflict. The liberals' anguish," the commentator concludes, "has focused on the row over press freedom. Mr. Putin, they say, will never overcome his KGB background, his dislike of criticism or his obsession with what television says of him."