A gratuitous preference for military force

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THE administration is edging closer to direct military action against Nicaragua. It is now public knowledge that it considered bombing targets in Nicaragua in response to the June 19 assassination of American military personnel in San Salvador, even though Nicaragua's relationship to that act was tenuous in the extreme, if indeed there was any relationship at all. Meanwhile, the administration says we must continue to fund the ``contras'' to force the Sandinistas to negotiate. In fact, however, it is the Sandinistas who are urging negotiations and we who are refusing. They are, moreover, prepared to negotiate seriously. During a recent trip to Managua, I had the opportunity to confirm with senior leaders there that within the framework of a verifiable international agreement, they are prepared to address our concerns as suggested below:

To prohibit foreign bases. The Nicaraguans would agree not to permit any foreign, that is, Soviet or Cuban, bases in their territory, or otherwise to allow the bombers, submarines, or other offensive weapon systems of those countries to operate out of Nicaraguan airfields or ports. In return, they would expect the other Central American countries also to prohibit foreign bases. This would mean advance US bases in Honduras would have to be dismantled.

To withdraw foreign military personnel. They are prepared also to negotiate a formula for the drastic reduction of Soviet and Cuban military personnel. The draft Contadora treaties, which Nicaragua accepted, provided for withdrawing all foreign military personnel, with the exception of equipment-maintenance advisers. The United States, understandably, objected, noting that the formula left a broad loophole through which an unlimited number of Soviet and Cuban advisers might remain. The objection could be resolved, however, by concentrating instead on a numerical limit. The Nicaraguans would agree to that, provided the ceiling were balanced and reciprocal -- meaning that if all but a limited number of bloc military advisers were withdrawn from Nicaragua, all but the same number of American advisers would have to be withdrawn from Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. Further, since the participation of US troops in Central American maneuvers would imply their reintroduction into the area,

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such participation would have to be excluded. The US has so far strenuously resisted any such restriction, but obviously an agreement would hardly be equitable, let alone acceptable to the other side, if it ruled out actions of theirs but not of ours.

To halt military buildups. So that no Central American country be in a position to threaten its neighbors, the US should encourage negotiations to place ceilings on the size of armies and restrictions on the number and nature of their armaments. The draft Contadora treaties would have left those negotiations until after the signature of the treaties. The US and several Central American states felt they should be completed before anything was signed. Fair enough. Since Nicaragua has no obj ections to that, the way is open to such regional negotiations if the other Central American states are ever ready to sit down with Nicaragua.

To halt cross-border support for guerrillas. The administration accuses Nicaragua of providing material support to the guerrillas in El Salvador, but in some four years' time it has been unable to present any concrete proof to back up these charges. The argument could easily be ended. As part of a regional agreement, the Sandinistas are prepared to commit themselves not to engage in such activities (whether or not they have done so in the past) and to submit to on-site verific ation procedures. The other side of the coin would be that the US, Honduras, and Costa Rica would have to halt their support to the contras. We could hardly expect to do less.

Solutions in these security-related areas must be of first importance to the US. The doors are open, however, to negotiations and commitments related to human rights, political pluralism, and national reconciliation. We are likely to encourage more progress in these areas through diplomacy than military action.

In view of all this, the administration's sometime claim that the purpose of funding the contras is to bring the Sandinistas to the negotiating table is seen to be without foundation. For all practical purposes, the Sandinistas are at the table waiting for us. Further, at their July 22 meeting, the Contadora foreign ministers called on the US to sit down at that table. The Reagan administration has already refused. Diplomatic accords that would meet our security needs are there practically for the takin g. If the administration doesn't take them, it is because it doesn't want to. Why not? Because its objective is to get rid of the Sandinistas, not to reach agreement with them. But to do that, it will have to bring US armed forces into play. It will be no honor to us as a nation if we thus spill American blood for objectives we could as easily have achieved through diplomacy.

Wayne S. Smith, former chief diplomat of the US interests section in Havana from 1979 to 1982, is a scholar in residence at the Washington Office on Latin America.

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