Reagan's 'big stick' policy

Many Americans are concerned about what looks to be the growing military involvement of the United States in Central America. President Reagan is stepping up pressure against Nicaragua with his plans for naval exercises in the region and perhaps with a significant expansion of covert aid to the rebels there. There is even speculation about a possible naval quarantine of Nicaragua. Thus, in terms of his public posture at the moment, President Reagan seems to be focusing on ''the big stick.''

Perhaps it is less the substance of Mr. Reagan's policy than the manner and style which troubles people. Even critics of the administration acknowledge that the US cannot sit idly by while Cuba and the Soviet Union exploit local revolutions in a long-term effort to implant Marxist regimes on the US doorstep - not only in Nicaragua and El Salvador but, one day, in Mexico. That is close to home indeed, and the President must take the possibility seriously. The prudent application of military force is also a tool of diplomacy, and any leader looking after the national security interest must be prepared to use it - the failure in Vietnam notwithstanding.

Does it need to be central to the US public posture, however? To be sure, the administration does have under way a diplomatic effort to see if a negotiated solution to the regional turmoil is possible. It does say that it supports the efforts of the Contadora nations - Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama - to bring about a political settlement. But, when an American aircraft carrier and other ships are ordered to the region, when Pentagon officials talk about ''intimidating'' Nicaragua, suspicion arises that the US is only giving lip-service to such support.

Mr. Reagan might win public backing for his policy, including a reasonable military presence, by a more conciliatory public stance. To many people it looks as if the US is now prepared to go down the road of intimidation without knowing exactly what will be the outcome. As Latin America experts note, it is somewhat misleading to talk about democracy and freedom in Central America given the authoritarian traditions of the past in that reg Does it need to be central to the US public posture, however? To be sure, the administration does have under way a diplomatic effort to see if a negotiated solution to the regional turmoil is possible. It does say that it supports the efforts of the Contadora nations - Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama - to bring about a political settlement. But, when an American aircraft carrier and other ships are ordered to the region , when Pentagon officials talk about ''intimidating'' Nicaragua, suspicion arises that the US is only giving lip-service to such support.

Mr. Reagan might win public backing for his policy, including a reasonable military presence, by a more conciliatory public stance. To many people it looks as if the US is now prepared to go down the road of intimidation without knowing exactly what will be the outcome. As Latin America experts note, it is somewhat misleading to talk about democracy and freedom in Central America given the authoritarian traditions of the past in that region. The risk is that the President is merely building up the resentments of the US which it created in the past by its support for the Somoza dynasty. If the Sandinista regime could be overthrown - and it is far from clear this is possible - would the US be able to create a regime that could overcome those resentments? That is doubtful. The better course is to come to some negotiated understanding with the Sandinistas concerning the subversion of neighboring countries.

This would not be the first time the US applied a policy that combined military pressure with patient, determined diplomacy. In 1965 the US landed marines in the Dominican Republic but this was quickly turned into a multilateral peacekeeping force under the Organization of American States. Then came a long diplomatic effort ending in an agreement with the military elements that were seeking overthrow of the government. For almost 20 years tXe Dominican Republic has had a stable democracy - something that was not generally expected.

Parallels can be overdrawn, of course. But the point is that the use of US armed force was simply a prelude to negotiation. If such is the intent of the Reagan administration in the case of Nicaragua, this is not clear. If President Reagan wants to bring the American people along with him, he will need to convince them that he is not substituting ''gunboat diplomacy'' for a thoughtful , sensitive diplomacy that is prepared to support social and economic change and includes a plan for much-needed economic assistance.

It would also help if US military actions had the blessing of the OAS - above all of the countries whose political lives are at stake. Where, one wonders, is their voice?

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