Reagan Defends Habib in Clash With Conservatives

Times Staff Writer

The White House defended special envoy Philip C. Habib on Thursday against charges by conservatives that he is undermining the rebel movement in Nicaragua by encouraging negotiations that, if successful, would force the Administration to end its support for the contras.

“The President is solidly behind his Central American envoy,” White House spokesman Larry Speakes said. “He thinks he is an excellent man who has served his country well in many capacities and is doing so in this capacity.”

Speakes made his remarks shortly after Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) delivered a letter to the White House assailing Habib for pursuing “a false peace” that he predicted “will lead to a diplomatic disaster.”


Kemp urged Reagan in the letter to recall Habib and state publicly the minimum conditions he would accept for “a negotiated transition from communism to freedom in Nicaragua.”

Conservatives are worried that Nicaragua’s leftist government will sign a peace agreement drafted by several Central American governments. One condition of such a treaty would be that the United States would have to withdraw its troops from Honduras, which borders Nicaragua on the north, and drop support for the contras.

Nicaragua’s Sandinista government then would use the absence of U.S. support for the rebels as a license to do what it pleases, the conservatives fear.

The draft agreement is expected to be signed June 6 by the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica--all of which have suffered armed strife as a spin-off of the Nicaraguan conflict.

The Nicaraguans have denounced the treaty and said that they will not be a party to it.

Accused of ‘Selling Out’

Even so, conservative backers of the contras fear that Nicaragua could reverse its position before June 6. And they have accused Habib of “selling out” the contras by even entertaining the idea of such an agreement.

To allay those fears, the White House released a statement Thursday confirming its commitment to a peace settlement that would require Nicaragua to oust all Soviet and Cuban military personnel, reduce its army “to a level which would restore military equilibrium in Central America” and withdraw its support for guerrilla movements in other countries.

Also, the statement reiterated the Administration’s position that Nicaragua would have to simultaneously implement a host of democratic reforms and agree to “concrete verification procedures to ensure compliance” before winning U.S. support.

“The United States would not consider itself bound to support an agreement which failed to achieve in a verifiable manner all the agreed objectives of the Contadora Document of Objectives,” the statement said, referring to the proposed 21-point settlement drawn up under the auspices of the so-called Contadora Group--Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and Colombia.

Managua Expected to Balk

Administration officials believe that the conditions they have cited as a basis for U.S. support of the proposed peace agreement are unacceptable to the Sandinista government. Therefore, they believe that the fears raised by conservatives will prove groundless because the Nicaraguans will either refuse to sign the pact or render it meaningless with conditions of their own.

But the fight over whether to support Habib’s efforts has reached deep into the Administration. The State Department has been publicly feuding with the Defense Department over a Pentagon report asserting that the United States eventually would have to send troops to Nicaragua if the peace pact promoted by Habib were adopted.

A State Department spokesman replied that the report has “no standing in the government.” However, it was produced at the direction of a leading Administration hard-liner, Fred C. Ikle, undersecretary of defense for policy.

$9 Billion a Year

The report argued that the Sandinista government in Nicaragua would surely violate any peace agreement, making U.S. military intervention inevitable. It predicted that a war in Nicaragua ev1701737589100,000 American troops to the region at a cost of as much as $9.1 billion a year.

At the same time, conservatives are furious that Habib reportedly has told House Republicans that the contras cannot win in Nicaragua. Reagan’s $100-million package of aid to the contras is stalled on Capitol Hill, a casualty of congressional concern that the Administration had not pursued the negotiating process aggressively enough before turning to the option of military assistance.

Rep. Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), who supports the aid bill, said earlier this week that the intramural fighting over the peace negotiations and Habib’s role is further damaging Reagan’s chances of winning the aid package.