Political Gamesmanship: Blame-Mongering Over Nicaragua

Kevin Phillips is publisher of American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

Liberals hopeful that President Reagan's push for U.S. military aid to the Nicaraguan contras is being discredited by neo-McCarthyism could be missing the larger picture. Certainly White House Communications Director Patrick J. Buchanan won few friends on Capitol Hill with his demands that Democrats choose between communism and freedom in Central America and his predictions that if we don't prevail in Nicaragua, we may wind up fighting in San Diego. That's tough stuff. And the President has wisely chosen to speak a bit more softly. Even so, with respect to Nicaragua, it's arguable that the Administration could win politically whether it wins or loses legislatively.

Bluntly put, shrill rhetoric has a considerable track record in the politics of U.S. foreign policy, and the President and his aides may find themselves alternating between high-minded coalition-building and low-minded innuendo. A contra success would be the most desirable scenario. But it Congress either forces an inadequate compromise or votes down serious military aid for the contras, then the Administration might opt to play one of U.S. electoral history's more rewarding games: territorial blame-mongering or "Who Lost China?" It has worked before.

Meanwhile, although bungling can undo any opportunity, consider what the Administration's Central American policy has going for it. Pluses included current Reagan foreign-policy approval ratings, political geography, historical precedents and America's mid-1980s Sylvester Stallone culture.

To begin with, the President is on a foreign-policy roll, and has been since last summer. He's impressed the public on handling terrorism and U.S.-Soviet summitry--and by being flexible, not ideological in the Philippines. Moreover, back in the fall, pollster Daniel Yankelovich found the Republicans ahead 2-1 in matters of keeping America strong. And January's Gallup poll gave the GOP a big lead over the Democrats in handling international tensions.

Congressional Democrats can reply, correctly, that this public support does not extend to military involvement in Nicaragua. On the other hand, Central America is not distant Southeast Asia. It's our backyard, where Americans have a long history of interventions, many successful and none dangerously entrapping. Indeed, over the last decade, it has been the liberals who misjudged the major political episodes in U.S.-Latin American relations--the 1977 Panama Canal treaties and Reagan's 1983 Grenada invasion. Treaty proponents didn't understand how American nationalism would balk at giving Panama "our" canal. And, in the first hours, quite a few Democratic politicians didn't understand how U.S. voters would cheer U.S. Marines invading Grenada--and winning. The man who understand both phenomena is the same President now escalating the stakes in Nicaragua.

The idea of Central America as our backyard has another relevance. While polls taken during the El Salvador crises of 1981-83 showed the public skeptical of U.S. military assistance or intervention, support tended to grow when voters were reminded: that Texas was only 1,000 miles away; that if El Salvador or Nicaragua fell, Mexico could destabilize, too, and that chaos in Central America could send a huge wave of immigrants and refugees rolling north toward the United States. Periodic doses of Buchanan-style rhetoric could presumably keep raising these threats.

Then there's the U.S. election map. Support for a strong U.S. policy in Central America tends to maximize in the Sun Belt--and to be weakest in New England and the upper Midwest. Democratic doves have never succeeded in making Tampa, Fort Worth and San Bernardino share the standoffishness of Vermont and Wisconsin, which makes the electoral equation appealing for the Sun Belt-oriented Reagan Administration.

Another bit of history deserves mention. Scapegoating over wartime defeatism or loss of territory is a major thread of U.S. electoral history. Charges of defeatism against the New England-based Federalists in the War of 1812 helped send their party to its postwar grave. Similar allegations hurt the U.S. Whig party in the late 1840s, following its carping, critical role in the American War with Mexico. After the Civil War, of course, "waving the bloody shirt" was a staple of politics for a generation. Most recently, in 1949-52, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and other Republicans profited by charging that the World War II agreements of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations had "lost" Eastern Europe and China. War-related political recrimination has been as American as apple pie, so the Administration's hard-line strategists could be correct in seeing Nicaragua as a potential catalyst for refocusing a whole 1970s "loss" sequence reaching back to Indochina, Angola and Iran.

This leads to the last critical ingredient in the equation: the Vietnam syndrome. Reagan has suggested that it's over, that America can now act boldly overseas again. Actually, today's U.S. cultural and political patterns suggest that Vietnam is still with us, but cutting in a new direction. Stallone's "Rambo" has tantalized a nation--and apparently a President, too--by asking in his latest screen incarnation: "Are they gonna let us win this time?" Reagan may be able to draw on more of that same popular frustration than his critics acknowledge.

Failure is obviously possible. But if Congress's help to the contras this year proves too little, too late, the Administration could unleash its neo-McCarthyite rhetoricians. Charges of defeatism might exceed public tolerance, but "retreatism" has a certain ring to it.

There are pitfalls for the White House, to be sure. No serious U.S. immigration policy is yet in place for what already verges on a U.S.-Mexican border people explosion. And the Administration could be biting off too many policy challenges simultaneously. Central America is a big and bold gamble. Twenty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to orchestrate a major military buildup, fight a war, avoid a tax increase and put an ambitious new domestic policy agenda through Congress. He spread too thin. His policy in Indochina was indecisive and his larger blueprint failed, helping put the Democrats essentially out of power for almost two decades. Among the historical lessons the Administration must keep in mind, this, too, is relevant.

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