Reagan Should Drop the Fig Leaf : Let Him Forget Treaty, Call for Military Victory by Contras

<i> Fred Barnes is a senior editor of the New Republic. </i>

A month ago Republican Rep. Jack Kemp of New York popped a touchy question to President Reagan at the close of a White House meeting. Was the President ready to abandon the contras , the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua whom the President has called freedom fighters?

Absolutely not, Reagan said. Well, Kemp asked, then why did the President’s special trouble-shooter in Nicaragua, Philip C. Habib, send a letter to three Democratic House members suggesting that the Administration will jettison the contras as soon as a Central American treaty is adopted? Secretary of State George P. Shultz stepped in to answer the question by defending the two-track policy of seeking a treaty and supporting the contras. No, the contras won’t be abandoned, Shultz said.

This brief set-to points up a lingering weakness in Reagan’s stance on Nicaragua--confusion concerning the goal of his policy. Does the President favor a treaty in Central America even if that means backing away from the contras? Or is he holding out for a military victory by the contras? Or does he think that a treaty would be fine so long as it let the contras participate in the political process of Nicaragua? Judging from various Administration actions, the answer to all three questions is “yes.”

Such ambiguity hurts the Administration in its bid for congressional approval of military assistance to the contras. Congress, like the public, is persuaded that the Sandinistas are bad guys. But the President has failed to persuade Congress that the contras are good guys. A major reason is uncertainty over whether his policy is pro-treaty, pro-contras or both.


Why the confusion? There are three Nicaragua policy factions in the Administration, each favoring a different goal. On any given day there’s no telling which faction is on top.

On the left is the Habib faction, apparently willing to put credence in a treaty with the Sandinistas and to abandon the contras.

On the right are hard-liners skeptical of even discussing a treaty with the Sandinistas. They emphasize that the Sandinistas broke their written pledge in 1979 to bring democracy to Nicaragua and can’t be trusted to abide by a new pact. This faction wants flat-out support for the contras, including enough military hardware to give the rebels a fighting chance to defeat the Sandinistas.

One hard-liner, Bentley T. Elliott, who stepped down last week as Reagan’s chief speech writer, says that the Administration has never been truly pro-contra. Other hard-liners include Patrick J. Buchanan, the White House communications chief, a few National Security Council officials, a number of presidential speech writers and assorted aides in the State Department, the Pentagon and the intelligence community.


Given Reagan’s publicly expressed view that the Sandinistas are not to be trusted, he might be counted among the hard-liners. But the President also says that he is not seeking a contra military victory; he prefers to force the Sandinistas into accepting an agreement that would promote democracy in Nicaragua.

So the President is in the hard-line camp and also in the middle faction--the one that thinks the two-track policy is fine. This faction is strong at the State Department and the National Security Council; its members include Shultz and Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary for Latin American affairs.

Privately, some but not all of those in the middle faction say that the treaty business is a ploy to satisfy critics and public opinion. Any treaty that the Administration would approve would have to ensure that the contras would be admitted to the political process in a newly democratic Nicaragua, and also provide other things that the Sandinistas would never agree to. But that’s the point. Any pact that the Sandinistas might sign, the President would oppose.

On the other hand, the Administration has sought to show that it is quite serious about a treaty by naming Habib, with his reputation for skillful negotiating, as the special envoy. If Habib is mere window dressing to appease critics, particularly congressional Democrats, he hasn’t gotten the message. He has become the point man for the third faction that wants a treaty with the Sandinistas so badly that it’s willing to dismiss the contras to get it.


“Appointing Habib was a great move for defending your left flank, if you could keep your right flank in order,” an Administration official said. But the right rebelled. Kemp and other GOP House members were outraged when Habib told them that the contras cannot win. Thus Kemp took the issue directly to Reagan and called for Habib’s resignation.

While proclaiming his backing for the contras, Reagan did nothing to clear up the policy confusion. Habib stayed on. The two-track scheme continues. And prospects for Reagan’s getting his way when the House votes again on contra aid are no better than they were in April, when the President lost 222 to 210.

Reagan would be better off if he came clean, dropped the treaty fig leaf and called for a military triumph by the contras. That, after all, is what they are fighting for. When I interviewed contra leaders on the Nicaraguan border recently, not one said anything about seeking a treaty. They were clear about their goal. It’s too bad that the Reagan Administration is not.