Secretary of State James A. Baker III on Sunday defended the Administration’s new policy on Nicaragua against charges that the agreement with key Democrats in Congress marked a dangerous surrender of presidential power.
Baker, responding to comments over the weekend by White House counsel C. Boyden Gray that the bipartisan plan unwisely increases congressional influence in foreign policy, said the agreement represents “a restoration of presidential power and not any diminution of it.”
Speaking on the ABC-TV program “This Week With David Brinkley,” the secretary of state said that under the accord, congressional leaders acknowledge “the President’s primary responsibility for implementing foreign policy.”
The plan provides $45 million in aid to the Contra forces opposed to Nicaragua’s Sandinista government over the next 10 months, but the money cannot be used for military purposes.
The deal represents the Administration’s recognition that the Democratic-led Congress will not buy more arms to help the Contras overthrow the Sandinistas, the goal of former President Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy.
Under the plan, which was announced Friday by President Bush and Democratic leaders in Congress, the Administration must seek approval from four congressional committees to spend any of the Contra funds after Nov. 30.
Gray’s critical comments on the plan were made in an interview Saturday with the New York Times. A White House official confirmed that Gray objected to the plan not only because he believes that it unconstitutionally cedes executive authority to Congress but also because his White House office was not allowed to review it before it was announced.
It was Gray’s second public clash with Baker in the early weeks of the Bush Administration. Last month, Gray used his position as enforcer of the Administration’s ethics campaign to pressure Baker to divest millions of dollars in bank stock because his influence on the Third World debt issue could affect the value of his holdings.
The tension suggests a brewing power struggle between Bush advisers in the White House and Baker and his staff at the State Department, who crafted the Nicaragua plan and sold it on Capitol Hill.
Baker, however, wouldn’t bite when a reporter asked him Sunday if there’s room in the Administration for both him and Gray. “Nice try,” he responded.
Gray could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Baker said the new plan was a “voluntary” agreement with Congress that did not raise the constitutional issues cited by Gray.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of one of the House subcommittees that will review the accord in November, said it is similar to routine deals that allow executive branch agencies to spend money in different ways than those explicitly authorized by Congress.
Baker said the plan’s carrot-and-stick approach promises the Sandinistas better relations with the United States and the possibility of resumed U.S. economic aid if Nicaragua moves toward democracy and loosens its ties to the Soviet Union and Cuba.
More Sanctions Threatened
“The sticks would involve tightening of economic sanctions, further diplomatic sanctions,” Baker said.
Interviewed separately on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s national security adviser, in effect rejected Gray’s complaint. Reminded of the White House counsel’s view, he was asked if the President had surrendered too much power to congressional Democrats.
“No, I really don’t think so,” Scowcroft replied, observing that it was “a really considerable achievement” to approach a bitterly divisive foreign policy issue in a spirit of “true bipartisanship” designed “to give diplomacy a chance and to resolve the issue.”
If the Sandinistas fail to fulfill their commitments to the Central American presidents, he said in reply to a question, “our options are no more foreclosed than they were before we agreed upon this policy.”
Former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, the combative architect of the Reagan Administration policy of military aid to the Contras, agreed that the plan provides incentives to the Sandinistas to liberalize. But he contended that the agreement may only “postpone the confrontation over Nicaragua” because it does not spell out what actions the United States will take if the Sandinistas do not live up to their promises.
“If Nicaragua democratizes, that’s great. Everybody’s happy,” Abrams said, also on the ABC program. “But when they cheat and don’t hold elections--and they will cheat--what happens next January? Then, President Bush is confronted with the same question: What do you do about the communists in Nicaragua? How do you punish them, how do you move them, how do you pressure them? And then, you may well get into the Contra fight all over again.”