DESPITE recent praise by a senior State Department official for Hanoi's ``high degree of cooperation'' in the search for United States soldiers missing since the Vietnam War, President Clinton has yet to make the lonely and controversial decision that might end a 19-year embargo of Vietnam.
``We've not yet made a decision on ending the embargo,'' says a White House official who recently returned from Vietnam and was this week preparing a list of options for President Clinton to consider.
A decision to end the embargo, which could set off a firestorm of criticism by conservatives and families of the missing in action, would be made by Clinton only, the official says.
Clinton opposed the Vietnam War. But as president, he firmly endorses the Bush policy of making any improvement in US-Vietnam relations - including easing the US embargo on trade and aid - contingent on Hanoi's assistance in obtaining ``the fullest possible accounting'' of the fate of some 2,500 US soldiers still listed by the Pentagon as MIAs.
``In my view, having reviewed the record thoroughly,'' the White House official says, ``the possibility of finding one of the MIAs alive is extremely remote.
``The difficult and central question is: Should this [search for MIAs or human remains] affect our foreign policy. It has for two decades. And this administration has said it will affect our foreign policy. We'll continue to search, but it does not necessarily mean that continued isolation is the only way to achieve the fullest possible accounting.''
This could suggest a decision to end the embargo in the hopes of increasing the chance of revealing what happened to the missing servicemen.
``I wouldn't be shocked if they [Clinton's advisers] came back with a sense that we should be moving the relationship along,'' says Rep. Gary Ackerman (D) of New York, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and Pacific Affairs. ``It seems to be the administration's trend.''
Last year, Clinton ended US opposition to loans to Vietnam by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other multilateral banks.
Then, on Dec. 23, the Treasury Department announced that US firms and individuals would be allowed to participate in projects funded - even partially - by those banks.
Representative Ackerman, like many public figures, declined to bluntly state whether he was for or against ending the embargo.
``I have two positions on the embargo,'' he says. ``One is that you get the fullest possible accounting of missing men. The second is that it might be time to move on.''
``I think we should lift the embargo,'' says Virginia Foote, director of the US-Vietnam Trade Council. The embargo has blocked US firms from investing in contracts worth $7 billion recently signed by Vietnam, where the economy grew more than 8 percent last year.
US firms will now, however, be able to bid on $1.9 billion in projects funded by international banks. Ironically, some of those firms will be repairing highways, ports, and other infrastructure blasted by US planes during the Vietnam War.
The Bush administration's ``road map'' in 1991 offered steps towards normalization of relations if Vietnam made progress ending the war in Cambodia and helped account for MIAs. Hanoi pulled out of Cambodia, allowed US officials to set up an office in Vietnam to lead the search for MIAs, and has turned over many sets of remains since then.
Critics such as Sen. Robert Smith (R) of New Hampshire and families of MIAs have rejected these moves by Hanoi as incomplete and say the embargo should be retained to pressure Vietnam to increase its cooperation.
Hanoi released documents
The White House official and Winston Lord, the State Department's assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, have reported that in December Hanoi turned over new documents about MIAs and that Vietnam, the US, and Laos worked together for the first time to investigate remote crash sites.
``We divert rivers, climb mountains, and risk life and limb to get to remains in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia,'' the official says. Searchers have been shot at along the Laos-Vietnam border, where most US aircraft went down during the war, he says.
As a sign of cooperation between the two former enemies, Mr. Lord turned over to Hanoi microfiche copies of a collection of 300,000 documents largely culled from Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters killed during the war. These could help Vietnam account for some of the 300,000 Vietnamese who simply disappeared during the war.