US and Indochina

AFTER a decade of steering clear of Southeast Asia, the United States is again trying to decide how deeply to get involved -- and with whom. At issue are American relations with noncommunist rebels in Kampuchea (Cambodia), and with Vietnam.

The past failure of American policies in Vietnam has made the US slow to become involved in many parts of the world, including Asia. It could soon become involved in both Kampuchea and Vietnam, in different ways.

Congress is in the process of authorizing $5 million to help the two noncommunist Kampuchean forces in Kampuchea. In loose alliance with the communist Khmer Rouge, they are fighting -- and losing to -- Vietnamese forces that control most of Kampuchea.

As anyone who has heard the stories of Kampuchean refugees can attest, noncommunist Kampucheans deserve the sympathy and understanding of people of goodwill everywhere as they struggle to regain control of their once-peaceful land.

It is hard to support a continuation of Vietnam's rule; yet if it were to withdraw now, the Khmer Rouge almost surely could vanquish the noncommunist forces and regain control of Kampuchea. No American would want that: Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the killing of between 1 million and 3 million of their own people during their reign.

Americans who favor providing the $5 million in aid contend that it will give Kampuchea an alternative to communist rule, should Vietnam withdraw and its puppet regime collapse. Yet this argument seems more a hope than realism. Whereas the Vietnamese might withdraw because of their economic needs, they might also stage another major offensive, to try to wipe out all resistance. If fighting spilled across the Thailand border, the US would have to decide how to respond to aid its Thai ally.

In addition, $5 million is far too little to make a difference. Would this aid, if given, merely be the start of ever-increasing American involvement, as occurred in Vietnam? In the case of Kampuchea, it is not yet apparent how victory by the noncommunists might be achieved.

The Reagan administration publicly has favored humanitarian assistance but not military aid, arguing that China provides all the weapons now needed. That policy might be appropriate.

But the Congress-approved measures, part of the foreign aid authorization bill, would permit the money to be spent on both military and humanitarian help. No funds now should be spent on military assistance: Guns are not a substitute for a well-thought-out foreign policy.

Congress should have thought through the ramifications more carefully. It will have another chance when it considers whether to actually appropriate the money.

The question of relations with Vietnam is also murky. That nation, controlled by America's one-time enemies, is making overtures toward a more normal diplomatic relationship.

What it wants is American foreign aid: The Vietnamese economy badly needs help.

What Vietnam has to give in exchange is information about Americans still listed as missing in action. Recently it has offered to return the remains of 26.

Over the past decade Vietnam has been doling out information about missing Americans little by little. That is not adequate. If Vietnam is seriously interested in obtaining more normal diplomatic treatment, and in even being considered for US foreign assistance, it should immediately make available all information it has about missing US servicemen. And it should greatly increase the number of US or other teams it permits to inspect crash sites to gain such information firsthand.

Before Congress or the administration takes precipitate action regarding either Vietnam or Kampuchea, it ought to carefully contemplate the long-term effects. That was not done in America's earlier time in Vietnam: One of the lessons from that experience ought to be to establish long-term policy and think through the ramifications of potential moves, before actually acting.

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