Clinton in a Hard Spot on Vietnam Recognition White House Denies It Urged Senate to Pass Bill on Opening Relations

Article excerpt

DESPITE pressure from United States business and Capitol Hill, the Clinton administration remains uneasy about lifting all US economic sanctions on Vietnam.

Last week the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution urging the end of sanctions, setting off a round of Washington speculation that the White House would soon take action.

But some administration officials are still leery of the backlash that might ensue if a president who himself avoided Vietnam military service normalizes relations with the country that stood down the US in a bitter war.

Many veterans groups are sure to criticize any relaxation of sanctions as a betrayal of the memory of Vietnam servicemen listed as missing in action.

Bitter about past government mistreatment and suspicious of Hanoi, missing-in-action (MIA) advocates have bristled at recent US statements that Vietnam is fully cooperating in the search for American remains.

That is the difficult political balance Clinton officials are facing: the opportunities in a growing East Asian economy vs. a powerful symbol of past American involvement in Vietnam.

"A lot of people think there are real economic opportunities there," said chairman of the White House National Economic Council Robert Rubin at a Monitor breakfast Jan. 28. "On the other hand, I think the president feels we have a real obligation to get this MIA issue solved to his satisfaction."

Hopeful US businesses have interpreted last week's Senate vote, plus hints and winks from various White House sources, as a sign of an imminent lifting of sanctions.

Vatico, a Washington consulting firm that represents large US corporations through a Hanoi office, has even announced that it will throw an end-of-sanctions celebration at a Vietnamese hotel the evening after sanctions are completely lifted.

President Clinton has already relaxed sanctions once. Last September he moved to allow US firms to take on work in Vietnam paid for by international lending institutions such as the World Bank. Humanitarian projects, such as health-care facilities, are also exempt. On Jan. 31 General Electric said it would build two major health-care centers in Vietnam, one in Hanoi and the other in Ho Chi Minh City. …