Out of Contra Vote, an Opportunity Waits

Alan D. Romberg is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

The House vote this month against aid for the Nicaraguan Contras was widely interpreted as a sharp break with Ronald Reagan's Central American policy, perhaps even a turning point in congressional efforts to challenge the President's primacy on this issue during his remaining months in office.

But despite some past flirtation with the Nicaraguan president, Congress has no particular love for Daniel Ortega, and whatever trust it had in him largely evaporated in the wake of his trip to Moscow after a previous aid cut-off. Moreover, given Capitol Hill's unremitting ambivalence over American policy in the hemisphere, it is likely that some sort of non-lethal Contra aid package will be approved. And, if the Arias peace plan fails, even arms and munitions may once more flow to the Nicaraguan resistance (assuming that the present aid cut-off does not destroy the Contra infrastructure).

Rather than representing a legislative revolt against the President's policies on Nicaragua, a closer examination of the House vote and the subsequent Senate vote in favor of continuing aid lead to different but even more far-reaching conclusions about the course of American-Soviet relations.

American history is replete with examples of congressional efforts to rein in "venturesome" Presidents. But those efforts have alternated with a more cooperative approach, prompted in recent years partly by genuine concern over assertive Soviet behavior and partly by members' fear of appearing soft in the eyes of their constituents. Moreover, some legislators admit that Congress is not well equipped to determine specific policies for protecting national security and promoting national interests. Having recoiled in the wake of Vietnam, one Congress after another then saw Moscow strengthen--and use--its muscle in pursuit of regional and strategic advantage. And they agreed with Reagan that the United States needed to respond.

Now, however, with not only the rhetoric but perhaps the reality of Soviet foreign policy shifting gears in the face of Washington's response--and under Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reformist prod--Congress' obvious desire to end the fighting in Central America has been joined with a hope, widely held in America, that international tensions in general will abate.

Movement on arms control--and, quite likely, Afghanistan--is seen as but the opening steps in a Soviet retreat, not from great power ambition but from expansionism and agitation around the world. The Kremlin's "new thinking" about national security policy, some argue, reflects recognition that the Soviet Union cannot afford the financial or political burden of its own interventionism or that of a Cuban-type proxy.

If this argument is valid, there will need to be some fundamental rethinking of American assumptions and American policies. Afghanistan will be a more obvious and a more important test of Soviet behavior than Nicaragua. But Moscow's Central American policy will weigh in American calculations.

The House vote, of course, sends a message to the Sandinistas: Do what is required of you and we will stand down. But, seen in a larger context, the message conveyed--consciously or not--is a challenge--and an opportunity--for both Reagan and Gorbachev.

The legislators are in effect saying to Reagan that he should marry his policy of peace through strength with one of strength through peace. And they seem to be saying to Gorbachev that they are wary of Reagan's Johnny-one-note, anti-Soviet approach to regional issues, weary of American involvement in maiming and killing, and willing to defy the President in order, as the cliche goes, to give peace a chance. In particular, they are telling the Soviet leader that they have heard his protestations of peaceful intent; despite their desire not to be tarred with responsibility for "losing" Central America, they are willing to test his sincerity--and his effectiveness.

Gorbachev is as aware as anyone of the setback that Soviet interventionism has dealt to U.S.-Soviet relations over the past decade. And he must surely know that he has created a climate of expectation throughout America, nowhere more so than in Congress, that fundamental shifts are coming. But he should also recognize that the narrowness of the House vote on the Contras, and the Senate's opposite stance, contained an implicit caution to Moscow: A tangible effort to promote peace in this hemisphere will bolster the mood to "do business" with the Kremlin; otherwise Americans will discount the prospects for change in relations on a range of issues going far beyond Central America.

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