June 16, 2019

The superpowers are demilitarizing and the Cold War is over by acclamation, but it will only be concluded when U.S. relations are normalized with Cuba and Vietnam, two nations symbolic of the fear and ideologic conflict that dominated U.S. foreign policy for half a century.

Cuba recently announced a dramatic paring down of its armed forces, a direct consequence of its destitute economy, abandonment by the old Soviet Union and lack of opportunity to export old-fashioned revolutionary communism. An unofficial delegation of former U.S. military officers and diplomats is in Cuba today to continue a dialogue with Castro’s military. Its objective: smoothing the way for a liberalized U.S. policy toward Havana.

Former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, who conducted a fact-finding tour of Vietnam in April, is urging the Clinton administration to allow the trade embargo with that former adversary to expire — in response to what he believes is Hanoi’s more cooperative spirit in resolving the POW-MIA issue. He claims it is a practical measure to provide the United States with greater influence over Vietnam and its policies. Conservatives made a similar argument to lift trade sanctions with South Africa. President Bush used it in behalf of normalized relations with the repressive regime in China.

Vietnam, especially where capitalist influences are strongest in the old South, believes that with the market reforms initiated in 1986, it can become an Asian dynamo in trade and manufacturing. All it needs is the capital that will pour in from two sources, international development banks and monetary funds and the queue of multinational corporations such as PepsiCo, Bank of America and Mobil Oil, which are negotiating deals that will go into effect when the embargo is lifted.

Normalization for Cuba, where U.S. major league baseball teams already have scouted the talent, or for Vietnam, is from a business perspective a formality and a technicality. But politically, it is a much more difficult call, especially for President Bill Clinton.

The POW-MIA issue still is far too sensitive for relations to be normalized with Vietnam. In the absence of a national consensus that there has been total cooperation and a full accounting of the missing servicemen in Southeast Asia, even a strong chief executive would have difficulty imposing this bold foreign policy initiative on such an emotional foundation.

Bill Clinton’s lack of foreign policy experience, draft history and Vietnam-era conduct were weaknesses when he came to office. In the past six months, the issues of gays in the military, the continuing Bosnian tragedy and the recent collapse of his only success, the Soviet-aid package, have significantly drained his political capital. The strike against Saddam Hussein may provide a temporary boost in his popularity, but the long-term implications of confrontation with Iraq should cause this administration to worry.

What Mr. Muskie is asking for makes sense and is inevitable, but it is asking too much of this president at this moment in his presidency.

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