WHEN they assess the presidency of George Bush, historians will remember the winning of the cold and Gulf wars. The last months of his administration offer him a chance to burnish this reputation by moving to resolve the bitter aftermath of a war America lost. It is time for the president to end the embargo against Vietnam. In his first policy speech after the election, Bill Clinton promised to press Hanoi for a "final and full resolution" of what happened to Americans missing in action (MIAs) from the V ietnam War. He ruled out "normalization of relations with any nation that is at all suspected of withholding any information" on missing Americans.
But "normalization" can be understood to mean not a journey but a final step: exchanging ambassadors. Ending the embargo need imply neither beginning diplomatic relations nor ending the effort to determine the status of the MIAs. Allowing Americans to trade with Vietnam and invest there could, on the contrary, help intensify cooperation on MIAs as a condition of full relations.
Given on Veterans' Day to an audience ill-disposed toward Hanoi, Mr. Clinton's speech showed that he, rather than lame duck Bush, suffers from a misperception about Vietnam. Mr. Bush, the Republican World War II hero who rooted for the United States in Indochina, will find it easier to reconcile Americans with their former enemy than will Democrat Clinton, who in escaping the draft and opposing the war angered Americans who did neither. Elected in November by a minority of voters, the president-elect can not afford to be distracted by controversy over Vietnam while he concentrates on reviving the US economy.
Yet lifting the embargo will help his domestic agenda by enabling US businesses to export to Vietnam and invest there, generating jobs and profits for Americans and meeting the new president's own requirement that foreign policy should help the domestic economy. For these reasons I can imagine Clinton's strategists quietly asking Bush to end the boycott so they will not have to.
In April 1991 the Bush administration gave Vietnam a "road map" of the turns Hanoi would have to take to earn normal relations with the US: (1) withdraw Vietnamese forces from Cambodia and support a peace agreement to resolve the conflict there; (2) permit the emigration of Vietnamese who worked for the US during the Vietnam War; and (3) help resolve the "discrepancy cases" of Americans missing in action but known to have been alive prior to hypothetical capture by Viet Cong or North Vietnamese troops.
Winners of long wars against France and the US in the 1950s and '70s, respectively, militant Vietnamese leaders once believed time was on their side. "For the last 4,000 years we have had no relations with your country," one official told me in Hanoi in 1987. "We can wait another 4,000." But that was before the cold war ended, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia stopped subsidizing the Vietnamese economy. These realities obliged Hanoi's hard-line Leninists to turn to the West.
The first two conditions on the "road map" have been met. One can disagree just how many Vietnamese troops and advisers were withdrawn from Cambodia at what times, and how many were later reintroduced and removed again. But clearly Vietnam has left Cambodia to its own devices. Hanoi signed the UN peace plan in October 1991 and has not obstructed its implementation. Vietnamese who were imprisoned or "reeducated" for helping the US fight communism have been allowed to emigrate.
Has Vietnam also met the third condition? Hanoi's willingness to cooperate with the US in clearing up discrepancy cases has waxed and waned. But the discrepancy list has been shortened, by some counts, to around 60 names.
Enough has been done to enable Bush to announce these near-certainties: There are no live US MIAs being held in Vietnam against their will; and even with Hanoi's cooperation we will never know the fate of all 2,000-plus Americans still unaccounted for, any more than the US knows what happened to its 8,000-plus MIAs from the Korean War or the nearly 79,000 still missing from World War II.
Recently, Hanoi opened its files and closets to American researchers. The resulting flood of evidence - thousands of documents, photographs, and objects - could be used, I admit, to postpone rapprochement. If Vietnam's leaders have for all these years denied access to their archives while hypocritically claiming to cooperate, why shouldn't Washington keep blocking trade until Hanoi coughs up still more information?
But this assumes the embargo can remain effective. Dozens of Asian and European countries are already in Vietnam - investing, trading, and lending. Taiwan's investments run to $75 million. South Korean trade will swell this year to $500 million, double last year's flow. Japan has announced a $370 million loan. Already Vietnamese consumers buy US products worth some $40 million annually, but the profits go to middlemen in third countries willing to ignore US displeasure.
Lifting the embargo would not commit the US to opening an embassy in Hanoi or providing economic aid. These would remain further destinations on the road map, Clinton and Congress someday willing. (It took eight years to move the US and China from economic to diplomatic relations.) Nor should Americans have any illusions that by trading with Vietnam and investing there they will assure the democratization of its government.
But that is not an argument for the status quo, because 17 years of isolation have not democratized Vietnam, nor will Clinton's proposed Radio Free Asia.
American trade with Vietnam's burgeoning private sector need not imply official US approval of the authoritarian socialists who are still repressing political pluralism there. But the Vietnamese have traveled far enough down the road mapped out for them for Bush to reciprocate with a few turns of his own: (1) acknowledging the likelihood of permanent uncertainty about many MIAs; (2) ending the embargo for the sake of American economic competitiveness; and (3) researching the fate of MIAs in an atmosphere
of broadening contacts and interaction. Who knows? The Clinton administration might speed the "peaceful evolution" from dictatorship that Hanoi's hold-out Leninists fear so much.
Bush is a lame duck. But in that lameness lies the strength to be a statesman - to do what is in the silent interest of Americans.