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Debating the Wrong Questions

Too often, explosive arguments over relations between the United States and Nicaragua blot out the fundamental question of just what U.S. interests are in Central America.

Last week’s debate in Congress over renewed aid to the contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government was a case in point. With repeated claims that the Sandinistas are Communists and a dire threat to the United States, President Reagan stampeded dozens of moderate congressmen into voting for contra aid just to prove they aren’t soft on communism.

Seldom heard and almost never answered in the debate was the basic question: Why should the United States be concerned about the Sandinista government?

The Administration turns the air blue with answers, only one of them valid. The Sandinistas would be a real threat to the United States only if they allowed Nicaragua to become a base for a hostile power, particularly the Soviet Union. The United States has sent the signal many times to Managua: No Soviet bases. No top-of-the-line offensive weapons, such as MIG fighter planes.

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If the Sandinistas, in their revolutionary fervor, have not gotten the message, the Soviets have. They have sent Nicaragua economic aid and second-hand weaponry, but nothing like MIGs. The Soviets seem to know where the line is drawn and have made no move to cross it.

That is a significant achievement, but not enough for the White House. Reagan insists that the Sandinistas cut their ties with the Soviet Bloc; stop trying to export their revolution by helping guerrillas in neighboring countries like El Salvador, and allow more democracy in Nicaragua. All worthy goals, but not answers to the basic question.

If the Nicaraguan revolution is to be made more democratic, and the Sandinistas are to have their expansionist tendencies curbed, the United States cannot bring such changes about alone. But it does have allies in Latin America who share its concerns about Nicaragua and are in a far better position to influence the Sandinistas. The Contadora countries--Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama--all helped the Sandinistas achieve power and are now trying to moderate the Nicaraguan revolution for reasons of their own. They have also been working for two years to arrange peace treaties between Nicaragua and its neighbors to avert a larger war in Central America. Their worthy efforts will not be effective as long as the United States dominates the scene with threats. The Sandinistas are only too ready to believe that those threats mean that they must build up their military force to meet yet another U.S. intervention. That is why Congress must keep Reagan away from Nicaragua and give the Contadora Group a chance to calm the crisis.

It will not be easy to hold the White House back. Reagan wants to press forward with his campaign to overthrow the Sandinistas at all costs; he is restrained only by public opinion polls that repeatedly show that most Americans do not want to go to war over Nicaragua. They know there is little that a poor, backward nation of 3 million people can do against the United States. That indicates a streak of common sense about Nicaragua that has been sadly lacking in the White House for a long time, and was in short supply last week on Capitol Hill.

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