Clinton unlikely to end embargo against Vietnam President to go against business

September 03, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- With a fall schedule full of divisive issues and his relationship with veterans groups already strained, President Clinton is set to disappoint business leaders and maintain the trade embargo against Vietnam.

The president's packed agenda and his avoidance of service during the Vietnam War leave him without the political capital to expend on this decision, according to congressional sources and others with close ties to the issue.

Ending the embargo, they say, would rile millions of veterans, the small but vocal POW-MIA lobby and its key supporter, Ross Perot.

"They're making a political calculation," said one Washington lobbyist who represents several American companies. "They are afraid of a backlash."

As a result, corporations anxious to cash in on Vietnam's fast-growing economy are pressing for a congressional vote to end the sanctions, sources said.

A bipartisan group of senators, including several who served in Vietnam, are considering whether to attach such an amendment to a State Department bill that is expected to come up for a vote later this month.

"There's a growing sentiment among some members that something must be done," said a congressional aide familiar with the issue. "No one thinks the president is going to end it."

A White House spokesman insisted Mr. Clinton hasn't made a decision and probably won't before Sept. 14, when the president traditionally renews his authority to impose all embargoes, including those against Cuba and North Korea.

The embargo against Vietnam, first instituted during the war, remains in place almost solely because of the Hanoi government's failure to give the "fullest possible accounting" of missing American servicemen or their remains. But although 2,264 Americans still are listed as unaccounted for, most were known to have been killed.

The number of high-priority discrepancy cases -- those in which soldiers were known to have been captured or were lost in circumstances where survival was possible -- is down to 91.

Recent moves by the Vietnamese to provide U.S. authorities with additional sets of remains or information on soldiers had raised hopes among companies like IBM, General Electric and Caterpillar that the embargo would end.

They're among the 160 U.S. firms that have opened offices in Hanoi or are signing contracts for future business there under an easing of sanctions approved last December by former President Bush.

But in recent weeks, as White House priorities became clear, the hope for a complete end to the embargo has almost vanished.

Mr. Clinton already is scheduled to plunge into health care reform, a proposed free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, and reinventing government.

"He's got too much on his plate," conceded John Terzano, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, a group that favors lifting the embargo and normalizing relations with Vietnam.

At the same time, Mr. Clinton continues to try to patch his relationship with veterans groups, angered over cutbacks in defense spending and the effort to end the ban on gays in the military.

The White House also has refused to consider a Pentagon suggestion to eliminate selective service registration.

Representatives of the four largest veterans groups discussed the embargo Thursday with Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Mr. Lord insisted Mr. Clinton hasn't made up his mind on the issue, said veterans who attended the meeting.

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