For the 12 major candidates running for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations, the question of whether the United States should aid Nicaragua's contras is an easy one. Every Republican says yes and every Democrat says no.
But in written responses to a series of questions from The Times, all the candidates of both parties agreed on one aspect of Central American policy: None was willing to forswear the use of military force in Nicaragua.
"As a general principle, I favor diplomatic initiative over military adventurism," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the most liberal Democrats in the race. But he added: "It is irresponsible for any potential President to reveal in advance his (or) her military contingency plans."
If the candidates displayed a certain consistency on these bedrock questions, however, they differed sharply on the reasons for their positions--and on the basic goals the United States should pursue in seeking a solution to Central America's wars.
Throughout Ronald Reagan's presidency, Central America has proved an emotionally divisive political issue. Reagan has elevated to the highest priority his campaign to aid the contras, the guerrilla army fighting to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government. In a series of flip-flops, Congress blocked U.S. military aid for two years beginning in 1984, turned the spigot back on at the end of last year and is now threatening to turn it off again.
Polls have found the public as divided as Congress over what the United States should do about Nicaragua. A majority of the electorate opposes American military aid to the contras, but an equally large majority views the Sandinistas as a threat to U.S. national security.
So it seemed appropriate that Central America would produce one of the presidential election campaign's first gaffes. The perpetrator was Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
"I've got a feeling a little three-day invasion wouldn't make anybody unhappy down there," Dole said in a newspaper interview last month. "You can't find anybody in Central America supporting (Nicaraguan President Daniel) Ortega."
Dole quickly explained that he was not proposing a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, merely dramatizing his view that Central America's other countries would like to be rid of the leftist regime in their midst.
Still, his response anticipated the refusal of all the presidential candidates of both parties to rule out U.S. military action in Nicaragua.
The Times presented all 12 candidates with four possible situations: a delivery of jet fighters to the Sandinista air force; the stationing of long-range Soviet reconnaissance aircraft in Nicaragua; a Sandinista invasion of another Central American country and Sandinista aid to leftist guerrillas.
The Reagan Administration has already warned that it would respond militarily if the Soviet Union delivered jet fighters to Nicaragua. The Administration also has responded to Sandinista aid to guerrillas in El Salvador by increasing U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government and sending American military advisers there.
Some candidates refused to answer the questions. Vice President George Bush, for example, called them "hypothetical and inappropriate."
But others were more forthcoming. Despite their party's recent history of opposing foreign entanglements, several Democrats made it clear they would actively consider using military force.
"I do not rule out military intervention in circumstances where Nicaragua directly threatened a vital U.S. interest," said Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.). If Nicaragua invaded one of its neighbors, he added, that "would clearly warrant U.S. military action."
"We will not tolerate a Soviet strategic base in Nicaragua," said former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt. In case of a Sandinista invasion, he noted, several treaties require the United States to respond to a request for military assistance.
Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts said: "If the Soviet Union were to introduce offensive weapons such as MIGs (jet fighters) in Nicaragua, that would be grounds for military action."
On the GOP side, Dole hinted that his White House would use U.S. military power--or at least the threat of force--more often. "None of the contingencies outlined are acceptable to the United States," Dole said. "All would be vigorously opposed."
Likewise, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV both said bluntly that they, like President Reagan, would respond forcefully to any deployment of Soviet-supplied jet fighters or reconnaissance planes in Nicaragua. "The United States should make it unequivocally clear that (advanced military aircraft) . . . will not be allowed in Nicaragua," Kemp said.
On the more immediate issues of aid to the contras and the prospects for peace in Central America, the candidates' responses underline the deep disagreement between most Republicans and most Democrats over the very premises of U.S. policy on Nicaragua. Republicans hail the contras as "freedom fighters" who would bring democracy to Nicaragua; Democrats see the guerrilla war as an obstacle to peace.
But the candidates' positions also diverge within each party, mirroring the tangled national debate over U.S. goals in Central America.
Among Republicans, Bush and Dole said they support continued aid to the rebels as a means of pressuring the Sandinistas toward a negotiated settlement that would preserve U.S. national security interests. Kemp and Du Pont took a harder line, rejecting any peace treaty in Central America because they do not trust the Sandinistas to keep their word.
"The Communists who rule in Nicaragua will say whatever they have to say, will sign whatever they have to sign, but will never stop exporting communism by force," Kemp said. "If the Communist Sandinistas remain in unchallenged dictatorship . . . there will be no peace in Nicaragua or Central America."
While the Reagan Administration has said it will talk with the Sandinistas if they also negotiate with the contras, Kemp said the United States should refuse to enter any negotiations with the Sandinistas at all. And, true to his "supply-side" economic platform, Kemp said he believes that the real solution to Central America's ills will come from "lower tax rates, private property, freer markets . . . and a North American free trade zone."
"No Communist government has ever negotiated itself to freedom," Du Pont agreed. "We cannot be fooled into thinking the Sandinistas are any different. They have made promises and broken them many times before.
"The real target of the Soviet presence in Nicaragua is the destabilization of Mexico," he added.
In contrast, Bush echoed the Administration's dual position of offering support both for the contras and for the Central American presidents' current regional peace plan, which calls for an end to support for rebel groups from outside the region, an end to armed conflicts and democratic elections observed by international committees.
"We need to give this peace plan a chance to work, but we must not and will not abandon the freedom fighters in the field," Bush said. He called for a cease-fire, negotiations between the Sandinistas and the contras and new elections inside Nicaragua.
Dole said he, too, favors a "comprehensive regional settlement" but emphasized U.S. national security over democracy within Nicaragua. Any peace agreement, he said, must ensure "that our own legitimate security interests are taken care of (particularly, though not exclusively, in terms of eliminating the Soviet military and espionage presence in Nicaragua); that the democratic states of the region are secure from threats and intimidation from Nicaragua, and that the people of Nicaragua have a fair chance to choose their own form of government."
Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. offered a small confession in his response: He noted that he had opposed aid to the contras in 1981, when then-CIA Director William J. Casey first proposed it.
"Though not originally in favor of contra aid, today I support it strongly," Haig said. "Our support of the contras has become an acid test of American credibility in the region. To abandon them would signal that we lack the resolve to keep our pledges.
"We must focus our diplomacy on the Cuban and Soviet dimension of the problem--the real strategic issue threatening our interests," said Haig, the only candidate to stress the geopolitical dimension. "If (Fidel) Castro and (Mikhail S.) Gorbachev ceased their intervention in Central America, the Nicaraguan people themselves would settle the form of their government."
Pat Robertson said he supports continued aid to the contras but offered no specific policy on Nicaragua or on Central American peace negotiations. "His ultimate goal is the opportunity for the people of Nicaragua to determine their own destiny through free and open elections," Robertson spokeswoman Barbara Gattullo said.
Among Democrats, all candidates were fervent in denouncing aid to the contras. Jackson rejected the policy as "dangerous, destructive and immoral"; Dukakis called it "illegal" under U.S. treaties and "contrary to our national interest."
"The contras are not democrats," Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) charged. "Their senior military leaders were officers in the Somoza National Guard (which ruled Nicaragua until 1979). They seem more interested in burning villages and blowing up power lines than in the well-being of the Nicaraguan people."
Gore said: "Aid to the contras represents support for an expanded civil war, a war which inevitably would be fought by increasingly savage means . . . . The only solution to the problems of Central America is a diplomatic one."
"When we . . . aid the contras," Illinois Sen. Paul Simon offered, "we give the Sandinistas an excuse and a scapegoat for their own failures and wrongdoing. We make change less likely in Nicaragua."
Every Democratic candidate also declared strong support for the Central American peace plan authored by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez--but they differed in the aspects they chose to emphasize.
"I believe that we should give our unequivocal, unwavering support to the Arias peace plan," Gephardt said. "To be sure, there are no guarantees and there are many questions and details that must be addressed. But our friends and allies in the region have embarked on an effort that warrants our full support." He did not specify any of the questions or details that he said must be addressed.
Gore, a relative conservative on national security issues in the Democratic field, said he is willing to enter into negotiations with Nicaragua if it would support the peace plan. But he cautioned: "The Sandinistas have accepted a commitment in the Arias plan to establish democracy within their borders. They should be held to that commitment."
No other Democrat put that much emphasis on achieving democracy inside Nicaragua. Indeed, Babbitt said he believes that the United States should "honor any agreement (the Central Americans) come to on the question of each nation's internal political arrangements" as long as it "protects our security interests."
Two of the most liberal Democrats in the race, while eschewing the use of military pressure against the Sandinistas, offered specific proposals to improve the chances for a negotiated peace.
"I will remove American advisers (from Central America) and will instead extend to our neighbors an offer of technical, agricultural, medical and economic assistance," Jackson said. Most peace proposals for the area suggest that U.S. and Soviet-Bloc personnel should be withdrawn simultaneously, but Jackson did not mention Soviet or Cuban advisers. "It is wrong to see Nicaragua as part of the East-West conflict," he said.
And Simon called for more U.S. college scholarships for students from Central America, noting that the Soviet Union and Cuba provide far more educational aid than does the United States. "The best defense we have against Communist aid is availing individuals of the opportunity to have a taste of American society," he said.
CANDIDATES AND THE ISSUES: CENTRAL AMERICA
Vice President George Bush Q. Are you for or against U.S. military aid to the Nicaraguan rebels? Why?
A. For, as a means of pushing Nicaragua toward a negotiated settlement.
Q. What kind of settlement should the United States seek in Central America? Can the United States accept a peace treaty that leaves the present Sandinista government in power? Should the United States negotiate directly with Nicaragua?
A. The United States should seek a cease-fire, a dialogue between all parties, including the contras, and new elections in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas should negotiate with the contras, not the United States.
Q. Under what circumstances (if any) would you consider ordering U.S. military intervention in Central America. Stationing of Soviet jets in Nicaragua? A Nicaraguan invasion of one of its neighbors? Nicaraguan aid to leftist guerrillas?
A. Refuses to answer.