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Only Congress Can Do It

As Congress prepares to vote again on President Reagan’s plan to give military aid to Nicaragua’s contra rebels, another thoughtful analysis concludes that a policy that focuses only on armed pressure on the Sandinistas is doomed to fail.

In a column published in the Sunday Times, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger warned that the Administration needs a more coherent strategy in Central America. Otherwise it must keep battling with Congress over relatively trivial matters like the $100 million that Reagan wants to give the contras this year. An aimless U.S. policy in Central America, he wrote, will doom the region to turmoil that will weaken fragile democracies throughout Latin America.

We think that his analysis underestimates the positive effect that Nicaragua’s cultural ties with the rest of Latin America can have in curbing the excesses of the Sandinistas. Kissinger believes that military pressure is necessary; we think that moral and economic pressure from Mexico, Venezuela, Costa Rica and other Latin nations will be more effective in nudging the Sandinistas toward democracy.

But for us the important point is Kissinger’s conclusion that the Administration is trying to do too much in Central America with too little support from its Latin American allies. Sixty prominent Latin American leaders and U.S. citizens in the Inter-American Dialogue said much the same thing last week. Both argue that a more effective strategy to deal with the Sandinistas must, to use Kissinger’s words, “separate Nicaragua’s internal arrangements from its ability to project purposes across its frontiers.”

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There is no disagreement on the need for the Sandinistas to expel Soviet Bloc military advisers from Nicaragua--not in Washington and not among Latin Americans, especially in the Contadora Group countries of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama that are trying to negotiate peace in Central America. The consensus breaks down when Nicaragua and other Latin American nations say that the contras must go, too.

Reagan insists that the contras are “freedom fighters.” Others are not so sure. So it is foolish for the President to make support of the contras pivotal in U.S. policy toward Nicaragua. Instead, the thrust should be to terminate Soviet Bloc support for Nicaragua because, in Kissinger’s words, “Without Soviet and Cuban military-economic support, Nicaragua would be a nuisance, not a threat.” That is what the Contadora Group has been saying for years. The White House doesn’t listen.

Before a new consensus can form on Central America, Reagan must give up his dream of overthrowing the Sandinistas. Nothing short of a U.S. military attack on Nicaragua, which is out of the question, can achieve that. The use of the contras as a surrogate army only makes the Sandinistas more repressive internally and more rigid in negotiations with the Contadora Group.

Subtle distinctions are essential to effective foreign policy. The President’s commitment to the contras makes it unlikely that he will accept the wise counsel that Kissinger and others are offering him on the subtleties of Central America. His Administration has all but abandoned the constructive proposals made two years ago by the Bipartian Commission on Central America, which Kissinger chaired. Those ideas remain a useful place to start reshaping U.S. policy in the region.

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But subtleties cannot be discussed as long as Reagan’s crusade against the Sandinistas diverts the nation’s attention and energy. U.S. aid to the rebels must be ended, and only Congress can do it. The House of Representatives must again refuse to approve aid for the contras when it votes on Reagan’s proposal this week.


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