DESPITE pressure from United States business and Capitol Hill, the Clinton administration remains uneasy about lifting all US economic sanctions on Vietnam.
Last week the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution urging the end of sanctions, setting off a round of Washington speculation that the White House would soon take action.
But some administration officials are still leery of the backlash that might ensue if a president who himself avoided Vietnam military service normalizes relations with the country that stood down the US in a bitter war.
Many veterans groups are sure to criticize any relaxation of sanctions as a betrayal of the memory of Vietnam servicemen listed as missing in action.
Bitter about past government mistreatment and suspicious of Hanoi, missing-in-action (MIA) advocates have bristled at recent US statements that Vietnam is fully cooperating in the search for American remains.
That is the difficult political balance Clinton officials are facing: the opportunities in a growing East Asian economy vs. a powerful symbol of past American involvement in Vietnam.
``A lot of people think there are real economic opportunities there,'' said chairman of the White House National Economic Council Robert Rubin at a Monitor breakfast Jan. 28. ``On the other hand, I think the president feels we have a real obligation to get this MIA issue solved to his satisfaction.''
Hopeful US businesses have interpreted last week's Senate vote, plus hints and winks from various White House sources, as a sign of an imminent lifting of sanctions.
Vatico, a Washington consulting firm that represents large US corporations through a Hanoi office, has even announced that it will throw an end-of-sanctions celebration at a Vietnamese hotel the evening after sanctions are completely lifted.
President Clinton has already relaxed sanctions once. Last September he moved to allow US firms to take on work in Vietnam paid for by international lending institutions such as the World Bank. Humanitarian projects, such as health-care facilities, are also exempt. On Jan. 31 General Electric said it would build two major health-care centers in Vietnam, one in Hanoi and the other in Ho Chi Minh City. GE is planning to help modernize the country's electrical grid if sanctions are further loosened.
Senate backers of the resolution on sanctions did intend it to provide political cover for a reluctant administration. Its main sponsors were decorated combat veterans - Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, and former POW Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. Medal of Honor winner Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska also signed on.
While the White House was kept informed of the resolution's progress, its backers deny that they moved at the behest of Clinton officials. Publicly the administration has reacted somewhat cooly to the resolution's passage, and some in the Senate think prospects for normalization are being fumbled.
``It is frustrating that the White House is not moving on this,'' says an aide to a senator instrumental in the resolution's passage.
MIA family groups reacted bitterly to the Senate action. A statement from the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, headed by Ann Mills Griffiths, said a combination of ``greed and ignorance'' led to the vote and called on President Clinton to refrain from following the Senate's lead.
The vote ``may have irretrievably destroyed answers for POW/MIA families on the fate of their relatives,'' said the National League of Families, as Vietnam now has little incentive to become more cooperative in the search for the US missing.
Military officials involved in the search for remains have lauded Vietnam's teamwork in recent months.
Commander of Pacific Command Adm. Charles Larson has said he does not think ``Vietnam is withholding anything.''
Vietnam turned over 67 sets of remains to the US last year, one of the highest numbers since the end of war, point out US officials.
Family groups believe Hanoi continues to withhold bodies. They point out that only 3 of the 67 sets of remains from last year have so far been identified. Many may not be American, or even human, they charge.
The ID process is a lengthy one, however, and reports show that 37 more remains have been at least tentatively matched with records of the missing.