Central America: forging a bipartisan consensus

WASHINGTON will have to pull itself out of the tailspin of its own vituperative rhetoric if it wants to set a steady policy course for Nicaragua. It does not help for White House spokesmen and allies in Congress to confuse Moscow with Managua, to tar those in Congress opposed to $100 million in aid to the ``contra'' rebels with ``responsibility'' for ``losing Central America'' if the Marxist regime in Managua solidifies its strength. This is red-baiting. It is shameful, because it would distort the terms of discussion by casting them in the jargon of ideological, partisan, purge politics -- a language that simply is not up to the job of forging a bipartisan consensus on the subject. Surely agreement, not embittered disagreement, is what the administration should want.

Neither the Sandinista ascendancy nor the future prospects of democracy in Nicaragua hang all or nothing on this $100 million in aid. The cumulative impact of Old World rule, of plantation exploitation, of United States hegemony, of the mixture of native, church, and gringo cultures, has to be considered. So does the context of Nicaragua's neighbors, who fear that a bully America could provoke a ruckus with Nicaragua that would leave the region worse off than now. The $100 million is not the last ditch in the containment of Nicaraguan Marxism, defense of the continent, or resistance to Soviet expansionism. If this argument were convincing, or at least plausible, Congress -- Republicans as well as Democrats -- would have been quick to sign on.

Compromise will likely again prevail, as it has done in the past in Central American policy. The most obvious compromise would be to postpone release of the aid for a reasonable period to give time for a sincere effort to negotiate a settlement for the region. Surely the administration has signaled that it means business. For the Sandinistas to dither instead of deliver would find the administration right back to Congress for more money for arms and more authority to attempt to topple the Sandinista government.

We have been here before. In January 1984 a presidential commission on Central America issued a report calling for aid to Nicaraguan guerrillas as a way of promoting negotiations for a regional settlement, and not as a way of trying to overthrow the government in Managua. The report also called for creation of a new Central American Development Organization and the spending of some $8 billion in American economic aid by 1990. Then, the hottest issue was human rights compliance in El Salvador, on which consequently there has been considerable success.

The mission of envoy Philip Habib to Central America should explore the prospects for a settlement based on more than military aid.

As the administration signaled this week in switching its policy toward Chile, this earlier, more constructive, more widely embracing approach -- that links democratic values, human rights conduct, negotiations, and economic concerns -- still retains at least some advocates within the administration.

It is the more convincing, and potentially the most rewarding, way to go.

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