Over the past 10 days President Ronald Reagan and President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua have given an impressive display of knight and pawn. They have moved their pieces about the board seeking an advantage but have not significantly changed their basic positions. That they feel compelled to move at all, however, is a tribute to the way the Central American peace plan devised by Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias Sanchez has altered the game. The two principal adversaries can no longer simply sit back glowering across the board at one another.
For his part, Ortega had long insisted that he would discuss nothing with the senior Contra leadership. Why talk to the clowns, he had asked, rather than to the owner of the circus, the United States?
But once having accepted the Arias plan and the cease-fire it called for, Ortega was caught up in its logic and momentum. How, after all, can one bring about a cease-fire without discussing details with the other side? And so Ortega came around to say, yes, he would negotiate those matters and those matters only with the Contra leadership--but on an indirect basis, with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo as the intermediary.
On Friday, in fact, he did just that. He met with the cardinal--and House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.)--in Washington and indicated that the indirect negotiations should begin immediately. Ortega offered an 11-point proposal for a monthlong cease-fire that Obando y Bravo was to present to the Contras. At the same time, he said he wanted the indirect negotiations to continue in Washington--something Contra leaders have already rejected. This is hardly a major shift, but enough to keep Nicaragua in compliance with the Arias plan.
Reagan had simulated movement in his speech to last Monday's meeting of Organization of American States foreign ministers by announcing that if the Sandinistas in fact got down to serious negotiations with the Contras, the United States would then be willing to enter into discussions with representatives of all the Central American governments, including Nicaragua's.
At first blush, this seemed to offer something new. Sources in the State Department subsequently made clear, however, that to be considered "serious," the negotiations would have to address a broader agenda--i.e., some form of power-sharing--and that while they might begin on an indirect basis, they would have to end up as direct talks between the Sandinistas and the Contras.
In other words, there was nothing really new in the Reagan announcement. The United States has always said it would talk to the Sandinistas, but only after they have entered into direct negotiations with the Contras. The Sandinistas have just as consistently refused to do that. Predictably, they refused again.
While all this posturing around the question of direct negotiations may have its comedic undertones, the issue is one of deadly serious proportions. As the Sandinistas understand, the Reagan Administration's insistence that they negotiate directly with the Contras is a function of its strategy to get rid of them. Should they accept the Contras as valid interlocutors and sit down to discuss internal political arrangements with them, they would in effect extend them belligerent rights and at the same time undermine their own legitimacy--perhaps fatally so. Precisely because of that, the Arias plan does not call for such negotiations or otherwise contemplate power-sharing. As a Costa Rican spokesman phrased it last week, "That is not allowed. Under the accord, all governments are legitimate."
Unfortunately, the Reagan Administration hasn't yet accepted that logic. It is still trying to maneuver the Sandinistas into committing suicide.
In his own address to the OAS last Wednesday, Ortega strove to place the onus squarely back on the United States. His government, he said, would fully comply with the Arias plan provided the Reagan Administration immediately ceased its aggressive Contra war against Nicaragua. If it failed to do so, then Nicaragua would not be bound by the accord and might again resort to such measures as closing La Prensa, the principle opposition newspaper. The outcome was not entirely up to the United States. Ortega also scathingly criticized Reagan for not living up to earlier promises to negotiate directly with Managua. Although White House spokesmen quickly denied that any such commitment had been made, the fact is that the peace plan proposed by Reagan and Speaker of the House Wright last August did provide for direct talks between Washington and Managua.
But after attacking Reagan so strongly, Ortega adopted a more conciliatory tone in reiterating his readiness to meet with the President if that would help the cause of peace. Not only that, but the President could invite Adolfo Calero and other Contra leaders to sit in on the meeting.
Nothing doing, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams was quick to reply. Such a scenario, he suggested, would cast the Administration's Contra clients in the role of junior partners. What the Administration wants is for the Sandinistas to accept them as equals.
And so matters stand, hung up on the same old snag as always: We won't talk to Managua unless it first talks to the Contras. One can understand Ortega's refusal--if he accepts, he concedes the game. The Reagan Administration's position is more difficult to understand. If the United States has legitimate security concerns in Nicaragua, why should those concerns be negotiated between the Contras and the Sandinistas? Why can we not negotiate for ourselves? Indeed, one would think the Administration would be demanding direct negotiations instead of offering them as some kind of door prize. After all, since the Contras obviously can't win militarily, direct negotiation with Managua is the only way to achieve U.S. objectives.
But don't despair. The Reagan Administration's position may as yet show some change. Reagan can no more escape the logic of the Arias plan than can Ortega. To be in compliance, the United States must terminate all aid to the Contras--even if the Sandinistas still refuse to talk to them. And at that point, as the whole misbegotten Contra policy collapses, the President must choose: Either he addresses U.S. security concerns through direct negotiations with Managua or he leaves those concerns unattended. The first course, painful though it might be for the President, would serve the national interest; the second would not. Whether the one or the other, inexorably the Arias plan carries the President toward those choices.