Bush is facing balancing act on Vietnam Emotion competes with economics

November 18, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The increasing likelihood that President Bush will take a major step toward normalizing ties with Vietnam before he leaves office has an almost almost poetic symmetry to it.

The last Cold War president, from a generation that sent young Americans to war in Southeast Asia, exorcises Vietnam-era demons before yielding office to the younger man who led demonstrations against the war.

A decision by Mr. Bush to lift the trade embargo that has been in place against Vietnam since the end of the war could be a relief for President-elect Bill Clinton, who might find it politically riskier to make because of his effort to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.

But in judging whether the country is ready, Mr. Bush has to balance a wrenching conflict between emotional and economic issues.

The prospect of an end to the trade embargo improved this week after Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who heads a congressional panel probing the fate of Americans missing in Indochina, received a pledge from Hanoi to provide clear answers to questions about those still unaccounted for.

"It's my sense that the president may be in a position, if we get adequate cooperation and if we can speed this process up, to make positive moves with respect to the embargo. I think that the government of Vietnam has made a decision to help us get answers," Mr. Kerry said.

But the incentive also comes from a more conventional force. U.S. business pressure to drop the embargo is likely to increase in the coming weeks as a result of Japan's recent decision to resume economic aid to Vietnam, opening a major gap in the U.S.-led economic embargo.

This will come to a head at a January meeting of the executive directors of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, when Japan may lead other major donor nations to an agreement to help Vietnam clear up its overdue debts to world financial institutions.

Such a move would suddenly make Vietnam eligible for an array of IMF-financed programs in which U.S. firms would be barred from participating, but not their overseas competitors.

Business pressure has been building for some time to drop the embargo.

And just as Mr. Bush may want to respond to those pressures, they are equally important to Mr. Clinton, who has vowed to increase U.S. competitiveness abroad and make trade relations, especially in Asia, a key underpinning of his foreign policy.

One of Mr. Clinton's foreign policy advisers during the campaign, Richard Holbrooke, a former State Department official who is now an investment banker, has been a strong advocate of dropping the embargo.

"We are losing the markets in Vietnam to the Japanese and to the French and others," Mr. Holbrooke said in February.

Yet, balanced against economic interests are the administration's oft-repeated commitment to the families of U.S. servicemen and strong resistance from the Pentagon.

For the military, the effort to try to claim the remains of fallen comrades is "the last obligation a country and military owes its people," said a congressional staffer who follows the issue.

Officials also hope, by the time Mr. Bush leaves office, to get satisfactory explanations for the so-called "discrepancy cases" of 135 Americans last known to have been alive in Vietnam. But the answers Hanoi provides may not satisfy the families of the missing servicemen.

The National League of POW-MIA Families believes there could and should be a much speedier repatriation of the remains and is frustrated at the lack of progress in the last two years in solving the unaccounted-for cases.

"If they want to see the embargo lifted, Vietnam knows what to do," said the group's executive director, Ann Mills Griffiths, sister of naval reserve Lt. Cmdr. James B. Mills, missing since 1966.

The United States last year laid out a "road map" to normal ties with Vietnam that required progress on the MIA-POW front and cooperation on the United Nations-backed plan to end Cambodia's civil war.

While the road map is a diplomatic vehicle and its language gives Mr. Bush some leeway, enough members of Congress and families of MIAs are aware of its specifics as to make it tough for Mr. Bush to rush the move to normalize.

And top-level Bush administration officials don't yet believe the Vietnamese have given strong enough evidence of cooperation.

"In the judgment of the highest levels of this government, the remains issue is not resolved," an administration official said yesterday. The administration also awaits the analysis and implementation of an agreement on accounting for missing Americans reached between Hanoi and Gen. John Vessey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mr. Clinton is strongly committed to assuaging the families' anxieties.

In a news conference Monday, he said: "I think that what the American people clearly would insist upon is that there has been the most extensive and good faith possible effort to have the fullest possible accounting on the POW/MIA issue before recognition. That has been my position consistently, and I don't intend to change that."

Events in the past 18 months instead offer a precedent for step-by-step incentives for the Vietnamese, well short of a lifting of the embargo.

For example, the United States last spring allowed the opening of telecommunications links to Vietnam and just recently allowed the unblocking of the financial proceeds from the move.

Advocates of lifting the embargo argue, as they do in China's case, that inflicting economic hardship "only helps entrenched Communism," in Mr. Holbrooke's words.

Mr. Clinton, an opponent of U.S. China policy, is a strong advocate of boosting human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

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