White House Errors Cripple Contra Aid

Fred Barnes is a senior editor of the New Republic, in which this article originally appeared.

On July 22 Tom Loeffler, a former congressman from Texas and the new White House lobbyist for aid to the Nicaraguan contras , visited House Speaker Jim Wright's office. He had no illusions about converting Wright to the cause.

"You know, Mr. Speaker," Loeffler said, "one of the things that's a new revelation to me is all this talk about a diplomatic track. The President is sincere about the diplomatic track."

Wright perked up. "Is the President really sincere?" he asked, sounding both pompous and oily. Loeffler's answer was yes . "Tom," said Wright, "you show me there is sincerity, and I'd like to pursue it."

From this sprang the peace plan for Central America announced at the White House on Aug. 5. The President's advisers thought that they had put one over on Wright. Rather than barring Sandinista support for communist insurgents outside Nicaragua, Wright agreed that democracy in Nicaragua must be guaranteed. He rejected containment, and advocated a demilitarized Reagan Doctrine.

But two days after signing on with Wright, Reagan's aides regretted ever talking to him. On the eve of Reagan's nationally televised Aug. 12 speech, their gloom deepened. They concluded that chances of more military aid to the contras had diminished.

This trouble was avoidable. The White House had only to stick to its original strategy--lobbying for a renewal of contra aid. Prospects had improved, mostly because of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.

With new aid, negotiations toward a peace with the Sandinistas might be initiated. White House officials have little faith in negotiations, but they recognize the public-relations appeal.

The stick (further arming the contras) must precede the carrot (a leap to the negotiating table). That was the strategy, but Wright got the White House to go for talks first, aid second. A bad mistake.

There were others. Practically every word in the peace plan was Wright's. As a senior White House official put it, the plan had "loose ends." One proved important.

Knowing the fervent opposition to the plan by Democratic liberals in the House, Reagan's negotiators should have got assurances of Wright's commitment to the plan until its expiration date--Sept. 30. They didn't, and within two days Wright had bugged out.

More harmful was the miscalculation made by Reagan aides. They thought it unlikely that the five Central American presidents who met in Guatemala City on Aug. 6 and 7 would reach an agreement. The Reagan crew didn't want an agreement anyway, for fear that it would queer the passage of more contra money. They thought that the Wright plan would stifle any agreement among the five presidents.

Wrong. It galvanized them into action. The far weaker Guatemala City peace plan was adopted.

It has no mechanism for forcing the Sandinistas to democratize, would not halt Soviet and Cuban aid to Nicaragua and might strand the contras without military assistance while the Sandinistas rearmed. Nevertheless, Wright instantly endorsed the weaker treaty, abandoning his own. Reagan was left holding a dead plan.

The White House made two other mistakes: Reagan's men agreed to Wright's condition that the White House keep quiet about contra aid during the effort to reach a cease-fire in Central America. They also humiliated the contras, whose new civilian leaders were in Washington while Wright and the White House completed their peace plan, but the contras didn't get a glimmer of it until Aug. 4--the day before it was announced.

On Aug. 6 Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega demanded negotiations on the plan with the United States. Secretary of State George P. Shultz said no , that there must be multilateral talks. This encouraged the five presidents to act, which is not what the White House or the contras wanted.

Why did the Administration get into this mess?

"The calculation was that you were going to hook Jim Wright," one official said. The Sandinista government would never agree to Wright's plan. And come Sept. 30, with no cease-fire in place, the White House would head back to Congress for more aid to the contras. Then "Wright's opposition to contra aid would be pro forma, and many swing votes would be freed up," the official added. "There would be no threats from the Speaker. And we'd get more contra aid."

From the start the White House and Wright had different concepts of where each stood politically. Reagan's advisers thought that Wright was trying to crawl back from full-throated opposition to the contras, believing that contra aid would be renewed.

In truth, Wright figured that he had the votes to block contra aid. His goal was to put Central American policy on the track that he had always favored--negotiations. To his surprise, the White House played along.

On Aug. 3 Wright presented Shultz and Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. with his plan. He and Baker took the plan to Reagan. "He liked the general thrust of it," Loeffler said. With some minor tinkering, the document was finished that night.

Two Administration officials raised objections.

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger demanded a face-to-face session with Reagan. He complained about being left out of talks with Wright. He also said that the plan was riddled with loopholes, and he forced the White House to draw up a list of 21 points detailing how it interpreted the peace plan. The trouble was that Wright didn't endorse the points. When he objected strongly to Baker about one--lifting the gag order on Reagan after two weeks--Baker knuckled under.

The other person who objected was Gary Bauer, the domestic-policy adviser. At the senior staff meeting on Aug. 5, Bauer challenged the gag order. Why wasn't Congress gagged, too? Wright can't control his minions, Bauer was told.

Reagan's last opportunity to recoup was in his speech on Aug. 12. He decided to welcome the weak agreement signed by the five presidents, and be supportive but less explicit about the contras. He was in no mood for more risks.

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