Some Democrats Back Reagan : Liberals Split on Whether to Support Aid for Contras

Times Staff Writer

Central America's civil wars have reached the drawing rooms of Washington, dividing the capital's liberal Democratic Establishment into two anguished camps and sapping liberal opposition to President Reagan's aid to the Nicaraguan rebels.

A handful of liberal activists have already broken ranks to support U.S. aid to the rebels fighting Nicaragua's leftist regime, declaring that some of the contras are fighting for democracy and deserve American support.

The vast majority of liberals disagree. However, the emergence of the dissidents has revealed a serious fraying of the Democrats' once-solid front against the Reagan Administration's policies in Central America. To some, it reflects a basic rift between activists fighting to preserve the non-interventionist policies of the Jimmy Carter years and a small contingent of others, mostly elected officials, who want to move the Democrats closer to the Reagan era's center.

The debate has aroused unusual passion, pitting old comrades from the anti-Vietnam War movement against one another. At the think tanks, congressional offices and dining room tables where Democratic policy is made, there have been charges of betrayal and McCarthyism. Jobs have been lost, friendships ruptured.

"I don't get invited to weddings any more," said Central America scholar Robert Leiken, one of the new renegades. "Some people on the left, from my days in the anti-war movement, have never forgiven me."

The conflict also appears to have drained liberal enthusiasm for the coming debate over U.S. aid to the contras, expected to come up for a new vote in Congress early in 1986. Until recently, most liberals were confident that the Democratic-led House could block new aid or at least maintain the current prohibition against U.S. military help for the rebels. Now, they aren't so sure.

"I don't think there is a consensus on Central America," said Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), a leading member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "I think it's up for grabs."

"The opposition is leaderless," complained Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), another liberal on the panel. "Support for the Administration's position has been slowly building."

Both Solarz and Torricelli said they will fight renewed aid to the contras, but both are gloomy about their chances of success.

"The question isn't whether the Administration can get the current level of assistance--that's certain," Torricelli said. "The question is whether they can get lethal aid. I think they probably have the votes where they can."

Until recently, the Democrats considered Central America one of their best issues--an area where President Reagan's policies were clearly unpopular.

House liberals slashed Reagan's requests for aid to rightist-dominated regimes in El Salvador, put tough human-rights conditions on what aid they did approve and blocked aid to the contras for more than a year.

First Rift Opened

Ironically, it was the liberals' success in forcing reforms in El Salvador that opened their first rift. When death squad murders declined and moderate Jose Napoleon Duarte was elected president, most congressional Democrats switched to supporting increased aid for El Salvador. However, leftist human rights activists continued to fight the aid, charging that Duarte's regime had not reformed enough.

"El Salvador was really where the break in the consensus came. It was the path to all our apostasies," said Bruce Cameron, a human rights lobbyist who supported the Duarte regime and later lost his job over the contra issue.

The second watershed issue was the behavior of Nicaragua's Sandinista regime, which came to be viewed by increasing numbers of liberals as unnecessarily repressive, even in the face of the U.S.-backed contra war. Sandinista youths physically attacked opposition activists during the 1984 presidential election campaign, and some Sandinista leaders dismissed the vote as a meaningless formality. After the election, the regime cracked down on dissidents and moved increasingly closer to the Soviet Union.

A Three-Way Split

The changes dismayed liberals, many of whom had championed the Sandinistas in earlier years. Some grass-roots activists still defend the Nicaraguan regime, but in Congress nearly all Democrats now take pains to say that their opposition to the contras does not mean they support the Sandinistas.

The result has been a three-way split. In one camp are the activists who oppose aid to the contras under any circumstances as simply immoral. "The contras and human rights are incompatible, period," said Ann Lewis, national director of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA).

In another are those few, including Cameron and Leiken, who have "defected" to the Administration's side in supporting aid to the contras, though they insist that their goal is to bring about negotiations between the Sandinistas and the rebels. They also criticize the Administration for failing to negotiate.

'Key Is Negotiations'

And in the middle is an unknown number of Democratic congressmen who say they oppose aid to the contras today but might be swayed if they could be convinced that Cameron and Leiken are right.

"There is a group that believes that some aid to the contras could be justifiable under some circumstances as a way of giving support to a political effort," said Rep. Matthew F. McHugh (D-N.Y.). "The key is negotiations. If the President could demonstrate that he's serious about negotiations, if he would appoint a negotiator who has credibility . . . that would go a long way toward convincing me."

Viewed another way, the conflict is between activists who talk in terms of moral absolutes and officials who more often criticize the Administration's policy as inneffective--and who are looking for an alternative policy that would clearly work better.

"None of the liberals outside Congress have asked me what I think," Cameron said with a smile. "But congressmen have."

Expressed Doubts

Until last spring, Cameron was chief human rights lobbyist for the ADA and universally acknowledged as one of the liberals' most effective congressional engineers. Then, he began expressing doubts about the ADA's absolute opposition to aiding moderate elements of the contras.

He went on leave from his job and helped Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) put together a compromise that committed Reagan to negotiate with the Sandinistas in exchange for non-military aid for the rebels.

The compromise helped win what the Administration calls "humanitarian" aid for the rebels (although Reagan aides later said he did not consider himself bound to negotiate). It also cost Cameron not only his job at the ADA but also his seats on the boards of two human-rights organizations that he had helped found.

Failed 'a Purity Test'

"I thought the human-rights language was good, that we could test the Administration with it," Cameron said bitterly. "It turned out that the (liberal) critique is absolute . . . that there was a purity test and I failed it."

Lewis, who told Cameron he could not return to the ADA, replied: "Our policy is simply that we disapprove of any aid to the contra forces. He may describe it as a very small step; I can't see that. It may be very small in distance, but it's very significant."

Cameron, an anti-Vietnam War activist who once organized campus teach-ins in praise of the Viet Cong and helped win U.S. aid for the new Sandinista regime in 1979, is now trying to assemble a bipartisan support group for his middle-of-the-road policy. He says he still considers himself a human rights lobbyist despite what he refers to as "my pact with the devil." He accuses his former colleagues of maintaining a "double standard" that lets them concentrate their fire on rightist regimes while sparing the left.

Compromise Politics

He is not alone. John McAward, former human rights lobbyist for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, resigned after he was accused of supporting the Administration view on El Salvador too often and of getting bogged down in compromise politics. McAward still opposes any aid to the contras but says Cameron's critics are guilty of intolerance.

"Ann Lewis sounds like the Catholic bishops on abortion; there's only one litmus test, and 95% of the other issues don't matter," he said. "Bruce and I disagree on the contras. That means we disagree on 5% of what he does. On the other 95%, he's the most effective lobbyist on human rights we have."

Leiken, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: "The issue is very important to the world view of many liberals. . . . They're painting it in stark and moralistic terms. It's very difficult for most liberals in Washington to move away from their fixed positions. There are so many vested interests involved: fellowships, positions, organizations."

There are, though, also subtle signs of a possible thaw. Last year, Leiken published an article harshly critical of the Sandinistas in the New Republic, the theoretical journal of rightward-moving liberals. This year, he was published in the New York Review of Books, the guiding light of 1970s liberalism.

"That's significant," a liberal dissident said. "A lot of people didn't want to see Leiken's article printed. . . . The debate is still in its infancy, but it's opening up."

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