There is plenty of room for honest disagreement with President Reagan's Central America policy. But the tactics employed by liberal Democrats to defeat the Administration's Contra aid request have raised some troubling questions.
Should Democrats in and out of Congress conduct their own independent, entrepreneurial foreign policy? Are the Democrats mortgaging their credibility and political future to Nicaragua's good faith?
Some of the methods employed by liberal Democrats border on the bizarre--like California U.S. Senate candidate Bill Press' negotiations last month with Nicaraguan Interior Minister Tomas Borge to obtain the release of an American, James Denby, who was accused of working with the Contras after the Sandinistas forced his small plane down.
In a tale of intrigue reeking of a bad spy novel, Press made no attempt to cloak his conduct in the mantle of lofty humanitarianism. Instead, the attempt to free Denby was described as a way to influence the congressional vote on the Administration's Contra aid package and to boost his own sagging campaign. Press reportedly told the Sandinistas that by handing Denby over to him they would help him get elected to the Senate--where he could oppose future U.S. support for the Contras.
Now, it may be fun to cha cha in Managua with Sandinista honchos, but Press ought to have asked himself who was using whom. Whatever the merits of the Reagan Administration's policy, American politicians should think twice before allowing themselves to be used as instruments of another--unfriendly--country's foreign policy. And U.S. Senate candidates should reflect on the irony of hitching their political fortunes to the beneficence of a man like Borge--the hardest hard-liner in the Sandinista Politburo whose main responsibility as chief of internal security is the suppression of political freedom in Nicaragua.
Individual escapades like Press' parallel the more serious institutional challenge that congressional liberal Democrats are mounting to the orderly conduct of U.S. foreign policy. During the past six months, for example, House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) has taken it upon himself to act as a rival secretary of state. In the process he has contravened official U.S. policy by holding peace talks on Capitol Hill with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and by inserting himself into the Contra-Sandinista dialogue mediated by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. And last month Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) went as a supplicant to Managua and implored Ortega to make some token gesture of political reform in order to make it easier for the Democrats in Congress to defeat Contra aid.
Congress cannot be faulted for challenging the premises and objectives of the Administration's Central American policy. The Constitution gives Congress the power to act as a brake on precipitous executive branch policies, and, by so doing, properly forces an Administration to explain its aims and account for its actions. Nevertheless, while Congress has the ability to oppose an Administration's foreign policy, it is not invested with the affirmative right to conduct America's external relations. Policy formulation and diplomacy are the executive branch's province.
In conducting their own version of Lone Ranger diplomacy, Democratic liberals are guilty of more than just a touch of hypocrisy. After all, it seems like only yesterday--during the Iran-Contra arms scandal--that they were accusing the Reagan Administration of "privatizing" foreign policy. Obviously, when it comes to diplomacy there is a free market; with no barriers to entry, the Democratic liberals are proving that in the United States anyone who has a bit of initiative can go into the business of foreign policy.
Constitutionally dubious, liberal Democrats' forays into Central American diplomacy are also politically unwise. After the antics by Wright, Dodd, Press and others, Democrats need to remember that there is a crucial distinction between opposing Ronald Reagan's policy and even seeming to advocate Daniel Ortega's. The Democratic Party can ill afford to make its political future the hostage of Sandinista winds.
Although liberal Democrats reject the unilateral exercise of American power in favor of a regional peace process, what happens if Washington's vital interests clash with those of Central America's small stakes? Although liberal Democrats deprecate the role of military force, what if diplomatic and economic options fail to bring peace to Central America and democracy to Nicaragua?
Questions like these separate realists from dreamers, those who make policy from those who merely criticize it. If Democrats expect to have their foreign-policy views taken seriously, they must answer questions like these convincingly and behave responsibly.