Clinton's Vietnam decision has strong GOP supporters


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's decision to normalize relations with Vietnam, 20 years after the war in which he avoided service, is certain to revive criticism among some Republicans not only about the decision itself but about the lengths to which young Clinton went to stay out of the military then.

The rantings of professional hawk and long-shot presidential candidate Rep. Bob Dornan of California -- he referred to Clinton as "the triple draft dodger" on NBC News' "Meet the Press" on Sunday -- certainly will go on with Dornan's accustomed bluster.

He predicted that there would be "hundreds of people in front of the White House" in protest of the normalization "and I'll be with them."

No doubt Dornan will show up, especially if television cameras are there.

But Clinton has some very significant insulation from attack on the decision, if not on his personal Vietnam draft record.

Leading American military leaders, most prominently including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Vessey who made several inspection trips to Vietnam, vouch that the Vietnamese regime has been extremely cooperative in efforts to account for American prisoners of war and those missing in action.

Those efforts have always been the principal premise on which opponents to normalization have based their opposition to that step.

When Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam more than a year ago, the opponents warned that Hanoi's cooperation on POW-MIA data would end, but they were wrong, according to U.S. military investigators in Vietnam.

More important politically to Clinton than the military leaders' testimony, however, is the outspoken agreement of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a decorated Navy pilot who spent nearly six years in a North Vietnamese prison, that the time has come for normalization of diplomatic relations.

McCain is no particular fan of the Democratic president and in fact is one of the leading supporters of the campaign of Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas for their party's presidential nomination.

But he says after visits of his own back to Vietnam that he is convinced that Hanoi has cooperated to an extraordinary degree and will continue to do so after normalization.

Noting that the Vietnamese government has permitted American investigators to go into Vietnamese military cemeteries and actually dig in search of American remains, McCain asks:

"Can you imagine us letting any country dig in our cemeteries?"

Although both Gramm and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the front-running GOP presidential candidate, have expressed dissatisfaction with the POW-MIA accountings and normalizing of relations, McCain says he does not believe President Clinton is likely to suffer serious political damage for trying to put the war behind the United States after 20 years.

McCain says the main opposition to normalization now is from "a small band of people who have a crusade on the issue" -- POW-MIA family members but also individuals who have exploited their hopes.

"I understand very well now why we dug up Zachary Taylor," he says, recalling the effort to find out whether the former president was poisoned, as some charged -- erroneously, it turned out.

Dornan, never known for restraint or caution, predicted on the interview show that Clinton's decision was "going to deny him a second term for sure."

But McCain said he was "not sure that it would be to [Gramm's and Dole's] political advantage" to try to exploit Clinton's diplomatic recognition of Vietnam.

Rather surprisingly, McCain noted that his own candidate, Gramm, "did not serve," and went on:

"Senator Dole served in another war which has ended, and I would like for Senator Dole to let us end this one."

Clinton, because of his draft record, always flirts with political damage when he involves himself in any matter of public policy having to do with Vietnam.

He could easily have sidestepped this issue, at least until after the 1996 election.

But having decided to bite the bullet, the president has the political benefit of having Republican ex-POW McCain standing behind him on this one.

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