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Clinton's policy on Vietnam puzzles, frustrates observers

Put down Tom Harkin's reunion as packing the season's biggest punch. The Iowa senator is holding one next week on Con Son Island, 140 miles off the coast of Vietnam, where as a young congressional aide 25 years ago he discovered the infamous Tiger Cages _ and put another nail in the coffin of Richard Nixon's doomed Vietnam policy.

Harkin is leading a congressional delegation that will be looking for answers President Clinton might need to resolve his endless dither over recognition of the current regime. Two senators are going, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, along with three House members, Tom Foglietta of Pennsylvania, Tom Bevill of Alabama and Victor Frazer of the Virgin Islands. All are Democrats. No Republican wanted to join an excursion that might make Bill Clinton's life easier.

Harkin will be reunited with two members of the original delegation that, with its heart in its mouth, went to the island: Gus Hawkins, a retired congressman from California, and William R. Anderson of Tennessee, who lost his seat as a result.

Harkin also lost his job as an aide to Rep. Neal Smith, D-Iowa, in a fight over custody of the films and recordings he had made of shackled, starving prisoners and the guards who threw lime on them. He got the pictures published in Life magazine, and started a firestorm over the penal policies of our South Vietnamese allies _ and his political career.

Anderson, a retired nuclear submarine commander, had been a hawk on the war, but the Tiger Cages rocked him and he turned on the spot. Eventually, he became an anti-war zealot, a defender of the radical Berrigan brothers, the priests who poured blood on weapons. His conversion was not appreciated at home, and he lost his seat in 1972.

He'll be escorted to the island _ which South Korean entrepreneurs would like to turn into a luxury resort _ by the same two men who took him there the first time. Don Luce, then of the World Council of Churches and now the head of the International Voluntary Service, heard about the Tiger Cages from a young student named Cao Nguyen Loi, who had been a prisoner there and still had a brother among the 500 abused inmates. Today he is a prosperous businessman in Ho Chi Minh City.

Harkin wants to investigate the current state of human rights in Vietnam, and check out the treatment of religious and political dissidents and the forcibly repatriated Vietnamese boat people, who have to be strong-armed onto homeward-bound planes.

Vietnam has turned itself inside out on the POW-MIA issue to please America, but it is far from a democracy. Still, Hanoi's mania for diplomatic recognition and the business it will bring to a haggard economy has caused exertions that are not dreamed of in neighboring communist China. There is a matching enthusiasm in the U.S. business community. Harkin says Iowa pig farmers are "salivating" over the prospect of supplying pork to Vietnamese fans.

Clinton's hesitation mystifies some. Apart from his chronically exposed nerves about the war he declined to fight, there is no explanation. "He couldn't ask for more cover than he got from John McCain (a POW for 5{ years) and John Kerry and Bob Kerrey (two decorated Vietnam vets)," says Harkin, a Navy flier in the Vietnam years.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is opposed to recognition, and so is Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., a leader of the noisy minority that thinks Vietnam has not done enough _ even though John Kerry, the most informed on the issue, says there are only 55 cases outstanding.

What is striking is that while Vietnam inches toward more decent treatment of its citizens, China is getting worse by the day. Two adamant human rights advocates in the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Frank Wolf, R-Va., are trying to persuade Clinton to punish China for new outrages that reach the atrocity level. Clinton has recently certified Beijing for progress in human rights, as required by law, and he has sought to divorce human rights from trade. In Vietnam, he strains at the gnat; in China, which gets most-favored-nation treatment, he swallows the camel.

Wolf is showing to Republican colleagues secretly made BBC documentaries that picture new horrors: the brisk rise in executions for the victims' salable organs, the "dying rooms" in orphanages, where baby girls, stuffed five in a cot and tightly wrapped, are left to die in temperatures over 100 degrees.

Pelosi thinks the president and Congress should at the least speak with one voice against it all. What makes Clinton's indulgent policy unintelligible is that the trade deficit with the Chinese is now $40-billion in their favor.

Universal Press Syndicate