US dilemma with Laos: protect the living - or dead? Trade-off between drug crackdown and progress on MIAs
Laos, once a secondary battlefield in the Vietnam conflict, is now a world-class producer and exporter of opium. Washington faces an increasingly difficult trade-off - trying to retrieve the remains of servicemen lost in Laos, while cracking down on the booming official drug trade.Skip to next paragraph
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Critics within and outside the Reagan administration are saying drugs have to take a higher priority, given clear evidence of Laotian government sponsorship. United States policy amounts to ``groveling for bones'' while ``kids are dying'' from Laotian heroin, says one sharply critical congressional aide.
On the other side, some officials argue that publicly sanctioning Laos will be only a symbolic act, since the US has little direct leverage with that country. Such a move, they say, would end the nascent bilateral dialogue on drugs and stop all cooperation in the search for troops missing in action (MIAs).
But a ``giant debate'' has been under way in the administration, officials say, and is now spilling into Congress.
US antinarcotics specialists conclude that the communist regime in Laos is the only government in the world that promotes the production of illicit drugs as state policy. The US intelligence community is ``unanimous'' on this, a well-informed official says.
The Vietnam war, however, still looms large in how Washington deals with Laos. President Reagan this month granted the country a two-month ``vital national interest'' waiver from sanctions required by the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act because of promised Laotian cooperation on the prisoners of war-MIA issue. He granted a similar waiver in 1987. There are thought to be over 500 Americans missing in action in Laos.
Accounting for these servicemen remains an emotional political issue. Pressure is great from families and veterans' groups to secure the remains of the dead and ensure that there are no living POWs in Southeast Asia. Many inside the administration, including the President, view this as a high priority.
Yet, people are questioning.
``It's time to say what's more important,'' said a longtime MIA activist, Rep. Robert Dornan (R) of California, in a congressional hearing this week. It would be a ``travesty'' if recovery of remains is driving US policy, he said, while drugs from Laos are ``putting our children in coffins.''
Representative Dornan acknowledged the emotion still involved, but said every official he has talked to believes there are no more living POWs. If MIA families could believe this, Dornan argues, they would agree to leave remains where they are and move to protect the living.
Rep. Lawrence Smith (D) of Florida, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee Task Force on International Narcotics Control, agrees with Mr. Dornan that the administration's waiver for Laos is on ``tenuous grounds,'' given the clear evidence that ``reliance on drug money has reached the upper reaches of the Laotian Communist Party'' and given Laos's ``zero cooperation'' on drug control.
During testimony, Ann Wrobleski, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters, said that Dornan's points reflected the debate within the administration. She stressed that the administration would review Laos's performance on the MIA issue and narcotics again by May 1. If there is no progress in either area, officials say, a new waiver will not be granted.