CNN - HANOI, Vietnam (AP) -- President Bush, on his first visit to a country where the United States lost a two-decade-long fight against communism, said Friday the Vietnam War's lesson for today's confounding Iraq conflict is that freedom takes time to trump hatred.
Embracing a former enemy that remains communist but is allowing capitalism to surge, Bush opened a four-day stay here that was fueling a raging debate over his war policy.
Democrats who won control of Congress say last week's elections validate their call for U.S. troops to start coming home soon, while Bush argues -- as he did again Friday -- for patience with a mission he says can't be ended until Iraq can remain stable on its own.
A baby boomer who came of age during the turbulent Vietnam era and spent the war stateside as a member of the Texas Air National Guard, the president called himself amazed by the sights of the one-time war capital. He pronounced it hopeful that the United States and Vietnam have reconciled differences after a war that ended 31 years ago when the Washington-backed regime in Saigon fell.
"My first reaction is history has a long march to it, and societies change and relationships can constantly be altered to the good," Bush said after speeding past signs of both poverty and the commerce produced by Asia's fastest-growing economy.
The president said there was much to be learned from the divisive Vietnam War -- the longest conflict in U.S. history -- as his administration contemplates new strategies for the increasingly difficult war in Iraq, now in its fourth year. But his critics see parallels with Vietnam -- a determined insurgency and a death toll that has drained public support -- that spell danger for dragging out U.S. involvement in Iraq.
"It's just going to take a long period of time for the ideology that is hopeful -- and that is an ideology of freedom -- to overcome an ideology of hate," Bush said after having lunch at his lakeside hotel with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, one of America's strongest allies in Iraq, Vietnam and other conflicts.
"We'll succeed," Bush added, "unless we quit."
Bush was to visit the U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hanoi on Saturday.
He met in succession with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet at the bright orange presidential palace, with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung next door, and with the country's most powerful leader, Communist Party chief Nong Duc Manh, at the ruling party headquarters across the street. Each time, he and his hosts sat under a large bronze bust of Ho Chi Minh, the victorious North's revolutionary communist leader.
Nong said the president had "opened a new page in the relationship."
In the evening, Bush was feted at a state banquet.
"For decades, we have been torn apart by war," Bush said, toasting his hosts. "And today, the Vietnamese people are at peace and seeing the benefits of reform."
The president's welcome by the public was much less enthusiastic than the rock-star treatment afforded President Clinton when he came in 2000. Happy crowds thronged Clinton, who normalized relations with Vietnam.
But Bush encountered a country where many with long memories deeply disapprove of the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- even as they yearn for continued economic progress to stamp out still-rampant poverty.
With all traffic halted, many Hanoi residents gaped at his long motorcade from their motorbikes. Other clusters of onlookers gathered before storefronts, a few waving but most merely looking on impassively.
Huynh Tuyet, 71, a North Vietnamese veteran who lost his hand blown fighting the Americans, recalled his own lesson.
"Even though the Americans were more powerful with all their massive weapons, the main factor in war is the people," he said. "The Vietnamese people were very determined. We would not give up. That's why we won."
Vietnamese officials eager for their country to take its turn in the global spotlight expressed disappointment that the president arrived without his expected gift -- congressional approval of a new pact normalizing trade relations with Vietnam.
Surprising the White House, Congress failed to pass the bill this week as expected, leaving U.S. officials trying to explain to the Vietnamese that it would be sure to go through next month.
The visit was a delicate balancing act for Bush. He was trying to improve relations with a crucial Asian economic force and to urge Vietnam to make further steps toward political, economic and social reforms -- even as his mere presence conferred special status on a communist government.
I know there's nothing I can do about it, but I think its bullshit the way our government gets to pick and choose who our friends and enemies are. I mean look at that photo....thats my leader standing there grinning his ass off standing underneath a statue of Ho Chi Minh......thats just fuckin wrong.
I guess there's some diplomatic reasoning behind this madness, but I fail to grasp it. I dont understand how so many Americans can die fighting Ho Chi Minh, and now we honor our victorious enemies with a state visit. Why did we need to normalize relations with Vietnam? Why couldn't they permanently stay on our shit list.
Its not just Vietnam either. Our politicians and diplomats have decided that China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Turkey, etc. are our friends. They used to tell us that the Russians were our hated enemies, then suddenly they were our buddies, now they are headed back to being our enemies again because they haven't embraced Democracy as much as we thought they would. That just proves that they are either terrible judges of character, or they think we are totally stupid. And their logic is inconsistent as hell....how come Communist Vietnam is our buddy but Communist North Korea and Cuba are still our hated enemies? Is it because China and Vietnam are Capitalist Communists, while Cuba and North Korea are not, and we can overlook the fact they are still dictatorial if there might be a chance to make a buck in it for us? Its funny how we only started considering normalizing relations with Vietnam once vast oil fields were discovered in their coastal waters and American oil companies wanted to bid on the concessions.
We have very few real friends and allies in the world. 95% of the people and governments on the planet want nothing more than to see us fail, and are actively pursuing policies designed to achieve that. Oh they might put on their smiley faces when the cameras are on them, but thats just to assure that they keep getting a piece of the American economic pie that our leaders so liberally hand out around the world.
Why cant we have an honest foreign policy? Why cant our leaders use the same rationale to determine who our friends are that we all do in our personal lives. We can all tell when we meet someone whether they like us or not, we can judge them by their actions, and we dont go around pretending people we know dont like us are our friends. Yet we watch China, Russia, Germany, and France send arms and technology to our enemies, arms that in many cases are being used to kill Americans, and yet our leaders still insist on treating them as our friends, and compromising with them on issues that relate to our security and economy.
I just think its bullshit that our leaders are so incompetent when it comes to deciding who our friends and enemies are. It sucks that we dont have any say in the process.