PRESIDENT Clinton is facing another major foreign policy decision, this time with acute political implications at home. The issue is whether, as some are urging, Mr. Clinton should lift the American embargo on Vietnam, thus permitting American business executives to trade with the former enemy and invest in its future. Successive American administrations have said the embargo must not be lifted without a full accounting from Hanoi of Americans missing in the Vietnam War.
In the global scheme, Vietnam is hardly critical to American foreign policy. Abandoned by its former Communist patrons, strategically isolated, and bogged down in post-war poverty, Vietnam is no major or threatening player on the world scene.
But America does have interests there, and an emotional involvement stemming from the war.
It is this emotional involvement that poses a special problem at home for Clinton. As a president who opposed American involvement in the war, and avoided military service in Vietnam, he is confronted by suspicious Vietnam War veterans, many of whom scowl at the prospect of his improving relations with the former enemy. Even more emotionally involved are the families of servicemen unaccounted for in Vietnam, many of whom believe the Hanoi regime has withheld information about the fate of their loved ones.
Yet another pressure group is the sizeable Vietnamese-American community, most of them refugees from communism, who think there should be no concessions to Vietnam until its human rights abuses are diminished or stopped.
On the other side are a variety of groups in favor of making a gesture to Vietnam. American businesspeople argue they are losing out to Japanese, Australian, and other investors who have flocked to Vietnam, unhampered by the American embargo. Government officials argue that the Vietnamese have in fact made sturdy efforts recently to come up with data on Americans missing in the Vietnam War. In Congress there appears to be support for a United States initiative toward Vietnam. Even some American veterans of the Vietnam War argue that the heartbreaking past should not prevent a new and more constructive chapter in US-Vietnam relations.
Hanoi's rulers, recognizing that their economy is in a mess, are eager for American trade, aid, and investment. But though they sanction economic reform, there is no sign of political liberalization. Vietnam is rated by Freedom House, the New York-based human rights monitoring organization, as one of the 20 worst countries in the world as far as enjoyment of political freedom and civil liberties is concerned. Political dissidents are harassed or imprisoned. Detainees face brutal conditions, including torture and lack of food.
But China's record is no better, and the US trades and even maintains diplomatic relations with China. The US similarly traded with the Soviet Union when it was a communist dictatorship and today trades with, and recognizes, various regimes as unattractive as Vietnam's.
Alan D. Romberg, senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Hanoi has done a lot recently, under pressure, to produce information about missing US servicemen, but there's still more to do. ``We have a process under way,'' he says. ``It's in US interests to lift the embargo, in order to continue a high level of cooperation from Hanoi. It's also bowing to the inevitable.''
Although dropping the embargo may be inevitable, Clinton must have the US military on his side if he is to withstand political criticism at home. To this end, Adm. Charles R. Larson, the American commander in the Pacific, has been dispatched to Hanoi, and has been shown on American TV shaking hands and conferring with high Vietnamese officials. Clearly the White House hopes that Admiral Larson will decide, and say, that Hanoi is making a genuine effort to account for missing Americans.
If the president decides to lift the trade ban, that is as far as he should go. ``Normalization'' of relations, meaning diplomatic recognition, is a far bigger step and should be withheld pending further evidence of reform and goodwill on Vietnam's part.