Washington — The Reagan administration is now engaged in a war of nerves, a war of propaganda -- and apparently a mini-war of secret action -- against the small Central American country of Nicaragua.
Through briefings, congressional testimony, and public appearances by high-level officials, the administration seems to be trying to build a case for even more forceful action against Nicaragua.
Indeed, the administration has raised the level of rhetoric on the subject of alleged Nicaraguan support for the El Salvador guerrillas to such a level that it may feel compelled to act more forcefully or suffer a loss of credibility and prestige. Some close observers say the time when some kind of accommodation between the US and Nicaragua can be achieved may be rapidly passing.
In its essentials, the verbal battle over Nicaragua boils down to this: The Reagan administration contends that it has irrefutable intelligence evidence, as yet undisclosed, that Nicaraguans and Cubans are both controlling and supplying the guerrillas now fighting the US-backed regime in El Salvador. The Nicaraguans deny this. So do the Salvadoran guerrillas.
The administation further argues that Nicaragua is engaged in a major military buildup which goes beyond Nicaragua's legitimate needs for defense. While not denying that they are building up their forces, the Nicaraguans contend that they feel threatened by the United States and by three US-supported regimes in the region -- El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras -- and, therefore, must take precautions.
One aim of the administration's current, high-level information and propaganda campaign is to convince members of the US Congress that its argument is the correct one. Sizable numbers of senators and congressmen have been reluctant to approve administration requests for increased aid to El Salvador. Some of them say they fear a step-by-step involvement in El Salvador which would be analogous to the Vietnam involvement.
The latest burst of administration briefings and statements appears to have done little to change congressional opinion. Those who are predisposed to be hostile to Nicaragua have been reinforced in their view. But critics have yet to be converted. Some, such as Congressman Michael Barnes, a Democrat from Maryland who heads the House subcommittee on inter-American affairs, voice alarm at the rising tide of administration rhetoric.
'The level of rhetoric is far beyond anything that is reasonable, given what has been shown to the press. I think it would be useful for both sides at this point to cool down,'' Barnes told the Monitor.
According to Barnes, the administration may be ''working its way into a position in which only some kind of dramatic military or covert action would be commensurate with the level of its concern.''
One problem for the administration is that it has yet to present evidence that Nicaragua is intervening directly in El Salvador. That subject is supposed to be touched upon in a press briefing to be held on March 12. In a briefing on March 9, Bobby Inman, deputy director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, charged that Nicaragua is building a military force larger than all its neighbors combined and that this could not possibly be required for purely defensive purposes.
Admiral Inman drew parallels with the buildup of Cuban forces many years earlier and speculated that Nicaragua might be building the basis for projecting its forces - and revolution - beyond its borders.
The Washington Post, on March 10, reported that the administration is already moving to take secret action against Nicaragua. It said that President Reagan, under a $19 million plan, has directed the CIA to build a para-military force of up to 500 Latin Americans to launch attacks from Honduras into Nicaragua. Such attacks, the Post said, would aim at destroying vital economic targets in order to disrupt the Nicaragua economy.
One critic of the administration's policies, Joseph Eldridge, director of the church-supported Washington Office on Latin America, says the size of Nicaragua's armed forces could probably be negotiated downward, but the current tough line of the administration only serves to make the Nicaraguans increase their defenses.
At a press conference held in Washington, D.C., on March 10, Jaime Wheelock Roman, Nicaragua's agriculture minister, said US ''distortions'' of the Nicaraguan military situation amounted to ''verbal terrorism.'' He added that airfield extensions and improvements in Nicaragua reported by US intelligence officials had earlier been recommended by an American construction firm and had been approved by the Central American Bank of Economic Integration based in Honduras. He said that Nicaraguan pilots were not being trained in Bulgaria as alleged by the US and that despite American allegations, Nicaragua had no plans to bring in Soviet-built MIG aircraft.