Day April 11, 2009
His performance in Vietnam was particularly intriguing. He knows the country well and is treated almost as a celebrity – a reflection of both the quirks of history, and his moral and political courage, qualities that helped propel his White House run.
Senator McCain spent five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam conflict, having been shot down and crashing his jet fighter into a lake on the edge of the capital. His vivid descriptions of being tortured – he refused offers of early release as the son of a leading admiral – did not stop his efforts years later. He not only returned to enemy territory but, as a prominent and hawkish Republican, played a key role through the late 1980s and 1990s in America’s long delayed reconciliation and normalisation with its victorious opponent.
In his political twilight, Senator McCain could be forgiven for resting easy during his first return to the Vietnamese capital in five years. Despite political and social differences, the two countries are open to trade and investment, and have taken the first steps to a military relationship – a pipe dream just a decade ago.
He remains restless, however. In a speech to the country’s diplomatic academy, he passionately urged both nations to get even closer. “Today, the hardest work of normalisation is behind us. The time has come, I believe, for us to move from the normalisation of our ties commensurate with Vietnam’s rising status in the region and the world. We should not simply rest on our laurels and allow the relationship to plateau. It is time to take the next step.”