Hanoi is not Baghdad. More like Washington, George W Bush must think as his motorcade sweeps past crowds of people who don’t look like admirers. Even so, Bush has not shirked from drawing comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. ‘We’ll succeed there unless we quit,’ he said. It would just take time for ‘an ideology of freedom to overcome an ideology of hate’.

Bush’s communist hosts must be puzzled by this analogy. Had the President blinked, perhaps, as Saigon fell? Victory hymns to the ‘ideology of freedom’ ring few cultural bells at the apex of a one-party state. And yet the President could be forgiven for his confusion. Vietnam, give or take a democracy deficit, has fulfilled all US dreams. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, where Bush spent November 20, makes Wall Street look like a not-for-profit ashram. Everything has marketing potential here, including pictures of Kim Phuc, 9, fleeing naked, her torso seared by napalm.

Long after the invaders left, US policy conspired against Vietnam, imposing ‘Category Z’ sanctions that made it a trade pariah and a no-go zone for aid. A pizza revolution later, repression dies hard. Bush arrived in Hanoi without the deal his hosts hoped for, after Congress stalled trade normalisation on the eve of his departure. But, despite all obstacles, Vietnam is now the world’s second largest rice exporter, the newest member of the World Trade Organisation and a mini-China among tiger economies. Its government is often poor on human rights, but few are mentioning it as the world focus falls on a country in love with globalisation.

In a twist of history, America appears to have won the war it lost. So what, exactly, was the devastation for? Why were five million innocent lives wiped out? Orphanages are full of children born deformed by chemical defoliants: 100,000 people have been blown up by landmines in the years after a war that killed 50,000 American soldiers. And all so that a US President could return, 30 years on, to talk tariffs with a regime that his country vowed and failed to crush. The final irony is that communist rule was empowered, not weakened, by the bloodshed.

Truly, as the President says, there are some lessons for Iraq. Only they are not the pursuit of victory to which he still aspires. Nor are they simple. Iraq never was Vietnam and it never will be.

Communism is not comparable to jihadism entrenched by the invasion. Bush and Blair cannot, and should not, stampede out of the Persian Gulf as Nixon’s forces once fled south east Asia. Vietnam did not become a bloodbath; Iraq might. The one bridge between the old quagmire and the new is fear underpinned by the bogus faith that the only alternative to Westernised democracy is nemesis. Desperation breeds strange solutions. As Anatole Kaletsky argued in the London Times last week, disaster in Vietnam drove the US to establish diplomatic bonds with communist China. Now Bush has been consulting fellow leaders on global restructuring.

Top of the list is how to curb the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. North Korea is a failing state that should, on no account, have nuclear weapons. It is also amenable to dissuasion. Iran, however unpleasant its President, is a powerful and functioning nation. No current threats, or future attack, by the US and Israel can stop it getting the bomb. It is appalling that international will for nuclear non-proliferation has been eroded, not least by the US and the UK, but that is another story.

The question for Bush and Blair is simple. Either they ask Iran for help in Iraq, as James Baker’s study group will recommend. Or they insist Ahmadinejad renounces nuclear ambition, which means no talks. A bitter choice.

In addition, a more integrated Tehran could help counter the Sunni fundamentalism fostered in creaking states, such as Saudi Arabia. Talking to enemies produces odd alchemies. Diplomacy and shifting alliances forge a safer world in ways that elude leaders fixated on trouncing the untrounceable.

Bush and Blair, weakened at home, both find themselves in curious berths this weekend. The PM, brushing off his concession that Iraqi insurgency is disastrous, arrived the other day in Pakistan, among allies whose madrasas inspire our disaffected Muslim youths taking gap years in radicalism. The President rubs shoulders with former untouchables whose communist government is showcasing a thriving, free -market economy.

Iraq’s tomorrow looks bleak, but its conflict will have an end some day. All Bush and Blair can do now is to hasten peace in any way they can. That means talking to Iran and Syria, without ruinous preconditions, and recognising that diplomacy is usually less lethal than aggression.

Vietnam and Iraq have an identical message. One country offers a story of hope, the other of hopelessness. But the moguls of Hanoi and the morgues of Baghdad tell the same narrative of misbegotten war. So much blood running down the gutters of history, all shed for nothing. — The Guardian