Reckless Test

President Reagan has made Nicaragua and Angola the measure of American manhood, the test of whether Mikhail S. Gorbachev will negotiate with the United States out of respect or dismiss it as "weak-kneed." And the only way for Americans to pass the test, according to the President, is to feed arms and ammunition to rebels who are fighting the Marxist governments in Managua and Luanda.

That is a reckless prescription. It attaches an undeserved strategic importance to two nations that, at worst, do not threaten fundamental interests of the United States. It manifests a regression to a simplistic anti-communism that is counterproductive because it fails to distinguish between real and imagined threats to national security. Perhaps worst, it risks deepening divisions among the nations truly important to the United States, enhancing the divisions that Gorbachev himself has seemed intent on creating.

As to Nicaragua, the United States has full diplomatic relations with the government that it seeks to punish. The forces that Reagan has chosen to support in Nicaragua, the so-called contras , have no allies except the United States. Indeed, the five principal Central American nations, and the four Latin American powers constituting the so-called Contadora Group, have asked the United States to withhold arms while they get on with peacemaking.

As to Angola, the President is not quite so isolated. He has one stalwart and committed ally, South Africa, which has never let its struggle to repress its own black majority prevent it from maintaining generous supply lines to the Angola rebel forces of Jonas Savimbi, occasionally reinforced by the deployment of South African troops within Angola. No other African nation and none of the European allies of the United States share the President's vision that Savimbi's UNITA rebels should be helped in their war on the Marxist government.

Reagan has chosen Angola and Nicaragua for his test, presumably, because of the presence of substantial numbers of Cubans in both nations. The Cubans may indeed be a mischievous lot, although some experts have been more impressed by their defensive, rather than offensive, roles. But no one can argue that giving arms to rebel forces is likely to encourage the removal of the Cubans from those two pathetic, impoverished nations. The contrary is the case. American aid to Savimbi and to the contras allows the ruling Marxists to justify prolonging the presence of the Cubans.

Neither Angola nor Nicaragua, for all their blind devotion to Marxism, poses a strategic threat to anyone. We share the global concern about the repression that grows apace in both nations, but neither has known freedom in modern times. If it is freedom that concerns Reagan, he has taken on a tall order. The just-published Freedom House comparative survey of world freedom ranks Angola as one of 29 "not free" nations in Africa, and Nicaragua as one of eight "partly free" Latin American nations.

Surely what most concerns the Kremlin is Reagan's judgment, now being tested in assigning priorities as he divides up the federal budget that he has worked so hard to cut. Worse than being judged weak-kneed is being judged weak-headed.

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