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On Point

Reconciliation, from Vietnam to Iraq


by Austin Bay
November 22, 2006

Vietnam and the United States "have a history," in the negative sense of the colloquial expression.

Last week's trip to Hanoi by President George W. Bush was about forging a new, positive relationship -- a new and better history.

After noting that Vietnam's prime minister had educated his children in the United States, Bush observed, "It shows how hopeful the world can be and how people can reconcile and move beyond past difficulties for the common good."

Bush used the tough but necessary word: reconcile.

Yes, a realpolitik energizes the emerging U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement. Vietnam worries about Asia's "Colossus of the North," China. The Vietnamese believe a solid Hanoi-Washington relationship will counter Chinese hegemony.

Washington and Hanoi want to establish a mutually advantageous trading relationship. In colloquial terms, that translates as, "Let's make money together." Capitalist victory? You bet. In Vietnam, communism is kaput as an economic model -- it is litter in history's dustbin.

But realpolitik, without the solidifying bond of reconciliation, is politically frail. Astute Vietnamese and Americans understand symbolic closure isn't full emotional or historical closure, but it serves individual as well as international needs. A number of American Vietnam War veterans have visited Vietnam, many making their own separate peace. Vietnamese-Americans have also increased contacts with their "old country," including re-establishing family ties. As the country opens for business, Vietnam's Communist Party will eventually confront empowered domestic critics. The Communists' depredations will require Vietnamese examination and reconciliation.

Vietnam may ultimately consider some form of domestic "reconciliation commission."

Cynics tend to dismiss "reconciliation commissions" as feel-good gestures, but this is another case of cynicism masking ignorance, for these commissions offer hope to deeply fissured societies.

The most successful example is South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission was established in 1995 by then-South African President and 1993 Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another Nobel Peace Prize winner, served as chairman. The goal wasn't punishment for crimes per se, but open examination of suffering and suffering's individual and societal consequences.

Clinical psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela served on the commission. She also personally witnessed a massacre in 1960. Her book, "A Human Being Died That Night," chronicles her own personal struggle with forgiveness in the face of great evil -- while acknowledging that forgiveness is essential if South Africa had any chance of moving forward socially, politically and economically.

South Africa still confronts tribal divisions and a host of fractious issues, but the TRC is regarded as a success and a model for national reconciliation.

Rwanda has implemented its own reconciliation process, with mixed results. I recall reading about a tribunal two years ago that gave a confessed killer (a Rwandan Hutu) a reduced sentence, over the objections of Tutsi villagers who had lost family members in the 1994 massacres.

The man, however, had to publicly confess his crimes, ask forgiveness from those who suffered and accept his criminal sentence. The greater public goal was a township where both Tutsis and Hutus recognized the rule of law and agreed to live together without blood vendettas.

Iraqis know that decades of dictatorship have splintered their society. Last June, Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki presented a reconciliation plan to the Iraqi parliament. Maliki's plan included a controversial proposal that would provide amnesty for some Iraqis who have fought and killed coalition troops (including U.S. troops).

At a press conference in June, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said that in his opinion there were only two classes of "irreconcilables": "those who want the old regime back (i.e., Saddam's regime) and those who are al-Qaida terrorist supporters."

The Washington Post quoted Khalilzad as adding, "All wars must come to an end, and the hostility has to be replaced by reconciliation."

Let's hope Khalilzad is right.

Reconciliation encourages cooperation, which Iraq desperately needs to advance politically and economically. Which leads to this holiday observation: Thanksgiving focuses on sharing a mutual bounty -- the harvest. And it is broad cooperation that produces the most bountiful harvests.

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