THE Reagan administration has long argued that the Nicaraguan government must become more democratic. Managua now faces a fresh opportunity in the new United States peace plan drafted by House Speaker Jim Wright and warmly embraced by the White House. The bipartisan proposal offers to delay the White House request for new aid to the contras in exchange for Sandinista acceptance of a cease-fire and democratic reforms. Though we concede to the skepticism being voiced in some quarters of Congress as well as in Latin America, on its face the plan represents commendable progress in White House thinking on Nicaragua:
The initiative marks a significant turn toward diplomacy and negotiation by an administration which had long insisted that only military pressure could force needed changes in Managua.
The administration's effort to get bipartisan backing for the proposal makes good sense; it may have influenced Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra's prompt decision to respond with a bid to the US for unconditional talks.
Congressman Wright deserves praise for his well-reasoned comments to date about the possibility of extending the plan's timetable beyond the current limit, his readiness to call the plan a variation of the Arias proposal, and for the promise he won from the White House to limit verbal barbs aimed at the Sandinistas and congressional critics during this early period.
A new administration willingness to compromise is also welcome. The giving up by the White House of its insistence that the contras must be direct participants in Nicaragua's internal political talks is a case in point. So is White House readiness to let the US take part in regional security talks.
Still, many on Capitol Hill remain skeptical about the timing of the plan and about the administration's motives and strategy.
Offered just at the close of the Capitol Hill Iran-contra hearings and just before the White House was to make its new contra aid request, the plan is viewed by some as likely to fail and, in the process, garner more congressional support for contra aid.
Announcement of the plan just before the Guatemalan summit of Central American leaders on the Arias plan and the apparent lack of any advance effort to consult US allies in that group suggest further that the US proposals are largely politically driven.
That said, we still hope that the plan succeeds. Numerous specifics will need to be answered. These include what happens to the contras and their arms during an in-place cease-fire.
How much progress toward democracy would satisfy the US? Washington should make some clearer distinctions between Nicaragua's internal and external political behavior. The main concern of the US and its allies should be to see that Nicaragua keeps its Marxist variation of government well within its own borders. The US must continue to weigh the differences between what it would like to see happen and what it can realistically expect. No government is likely to negotiate its withdrawal from power.
The administration's proposal is more forthcoming than any offered before. Even if it should fail, the outcome must not be allowed to write the final chapter to diplomatic efforts. At issue is willingness to compromise; negotiation remains a workable tool for such efforts. Congress and the White House deserve credit for their effort to move the process forward.