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Progress and Procrastination : Bush’s Nicaraguan Plan Buys Time but Perhaps Little Else

<i> Abraham F. Lowenthal, a professor of international relations at USC, is executive director of the Inter-American Dialogue. </i>

The bipartisan accord on Nicaraguan policy unveiled last Friday by President Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and the congressional leadership is an impressive and welcome achievement, yet it may be illusory and could presage trouble ahead.

The new consensus, engineered personally by Baker over the past few weeks, is impressive because it has sharply narrowed the range of debate in Washington over Nicaragua. For the first time in years, it is now possible to imagine a sustainable national approach. Bush and Baker have acknowledged that the Reagan Administration policy of seeking the overthrow of the Sandinistas has failed. After almost a decade of bitter conflict between Democrats and Republicans and the executive branch and Congress--as well as within both branches and parties--there is now some real prospect that Washington can concentrate its attention and energy on other issues.

This new consensus is possible in part because of broad agreement in Washington on the security and political objectives of U.S. policy: to prevent Nicaragua from becoming a Soviet military base, to protect Nicaragua’s neighbors from subversion or attack by the Sandinistas and to promote political opening and movement toward democracy in Nicaragua. Up to now, however, agreement on these broad principles--evident already in the agreement two years ago between President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.)--failed to produce a bipartisan policy because of important continuing differences over criteria for the evaluation of progress toward these goals, as well as strong disagreement over the means to achieve them, and because of the deep distrust between Congress and the executive branch.

The Bush-Baker team managed to produce a heretofore elusive consensus by demonstrating astute flexibility on matters of substance and of procedure. The Administration has accepted the point made repeatedly by congressional Democrats--that the aim of U.S. policy need not be to oust the Sandinista regime or force it to “cry uncle,” as long as Nicaragua’s actions do not threaten important American interests. And the Bush-Baker team, by conceding to Congress a chance to review and evaluate Administration policy next November, has won a chance to speak for U.S. policy in Central America without perpetual congressional dissent.

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Congressional Democrats, for their part, have been persuaded, at least for now, to trust that Secretary Baker will give diplomacy a real try in Central America. They are willing to provide further non-military assistance to the Contras, in part as a means of pressuring the Sandinistas to negotiate with their opponents. And most Republicans, suspicious of any move to negotiate with the Sandinistas, are going along with the Baker proposal because aid to the Contras will be sustained until next February, at which time the Sandinistas promise to hold free and fair national elections should be tested. The right believes that the scheduled elections, if held, will provide an opportunity to weaken and perhaps mortally wound the Sandinistas; if the elections are put off or blatantly rigged, conservative Republicans expect to build support for renewed military aid to the Contras.

For all these reasons, the Administration’s proposal for humanitarian aid to the Contras will probably be approved by a wide margin in both Houses. After a series of cliffhanger votes during the past several years, with the Contra aid spigot being turned on and off, the Bush-Baker team has succeeded in enlisting broad support for its policy for almost a year in advance.

The undoubted virtues of the Bush-Baker strategy are that they open the door to a much more pragmatic regional approach and gives both the Administration and Central American diplomats some room to maneuver. The problems with this approach, however, are that it puts the consideration of security issues on hold, postpones any effort to promote regional economic recovery and leaves the Contras and others uncertain about eventual U.S. policy--while Washington waits for a democratic opening in Nicaragua that could take years to accomplish.

The Bush Administration’s plan, unfortunately, makes far more sense in terms of Washington’s politics than in terms of Central America’s realities--or even of the fundamental priorities of U.S. policy. The danger is that by focusing on democracy as a goal--one that all Americans can embrace--the crucial need to reach security agreements reducing the Soviet and Cuban presence in Nicaragua may be postponed. Another problem is that the accord fails to define any criteria for judging adequate progress toward democracy. For congressional conservatives, the democratization of Nicaragua is still tantamount to the Sandinistas’ defeat. In any event, it is unlikely that Nicaragua’s Marxists will become Jeffersonians or that Nicaragua will soon resemble Vermont.

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If, as is entirely possible, the Sandinistas foreclose the immediate possibility of losing power, the conservatives will predictably return to arguing that U.S. interests require the Sandinistas’ ouster. The debate in Washington will then be back close to square one.

The fact is, Congress and the Administration still have not really decided whether--as President Bush put it--"to claim the right to order the politics of Nicaragua.” Until this question is faced, Central America remains likely to demand an inordinate share of Washington’s attention.


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