The appointment of Henry Kissinger to head up the new bipartisan presidential commission on Central America is as interesting for its political as its diplomatic implications. President Reagan clearly is moving toward the center of the ideological spectrum. Before he came into office, Mr. Reagan was a severe critic of Kissinger policies - on SALT, Panama Canal, and other issues. Yet, ironically, he is being forced by the pressure of events - and by the lack of towering advisers within his own administration - to tap figures who have served a former Republican administration and who have undeniable expertise and skills. He did this in the case of Brent Scowcroft and the MX commission. He is now doing it with Henry Kissinger.Skip to next paragraph
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In terms of public perception, the President doubtless gains by the move. Mr. Kissinger is, to say the least, a controversial figure. But he commands a stature in the public mind that few other people do. With Central America such a morass, many Americans will likely feel relieved that the whole issue is being gone into by someone who knows what he is doing. The President may thus be able to build the broader political base of support for his Central America policy which he now seeks. Politically, the Kissinger appointment seems a shrewd step.
In foreign policy terms, the choice raises concerns. As in the case of the MX commission, the President chose not someone neutral but someone who shares his basic view on the subject. Mr. Kissinger is known to favor a strong US military hand in Central America, perhaps even a troop presence on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border. Add to this Mr. Kissinger's role in the Vietnam war , in Chile during the Allende period, and in Angola (where he favored covert US military aid for the rebels) and it is easy to conclude that the basic outcome of the bipartisan commission's work is predetermined.
Mr. Kissinger will have to allay fears among many in Congress that this is the case.The widely held view is that the administration sees the problem in Central America largely as an East-West confrontation and as soluble only by stepping up military aid. Yet many knowledgeable voices believe that the US should cast its weight more heavily on the side of long-term economic aid as well as meaningful discussions - not only with leftist forces in the area but with Cuba and even the Soviet Union. Will the study commission look dispassionately and objectively at the whole range of policy alternatives? Will it seek out all shades of opinion? Mr. Kissinger is not himself an expert on Latin America or on the third world in general. So he, too, will need to learn. It is important, moreover, is that Mr. Kissinger not become the paramount issue rather than Central America.
Whatever the controversies over his past policies, the former secretary of state sought to serve the US national interest. He has the opportunity to do so again and it can be hoped that he will bring to the task not only his proverbial analytical brilliance but a determination to come up with recommendations for the President which are based on a searching, thoughtful, and honest probe. The nation does indeed need to be more united on US policy in Central America and to know where it is going and why. The bipartisan commission, if it functions as it should, can help clarify that purpose and direction.