Al Haig: where the contra policy went wrong

The Reagan administration's first secretary of state argues that shutting off Soviet-Cuban inroads and shoring up Central America's economy, not establishing ``democracy'' in Nicaragua, should have been the aims of Washington policy. Following is Mr. Haig's analysis, from a recent Monitor editorial board conference. IT'S no secret that I was vehemently opposed to the policy that we decided to pursue [in Nicaragua] in 1981, and reaffirmed again in 1982, built exclusively on a covert approach. I argued against it for several reasons.

First, I thought it was a cop-out. The President wanted to go to bed every night telling himself he had done something tough against those Marxist Sandinistas, but the men around him insisted that he could get up every morning and still be loved by the [American] people, because he hadn't disturbed their tranquillity. This reason is trivial.

The second reason is, it was a contradiction in terms in the Reagan White House, and I told that to the President. I never sat in the most sensitive meeting in the west basement even in a confined group, because always the triumvirate was included - [Edwin] Meese, [James] Baker, and [Michael] Deaver - who knew nothing whatsoever about foreign policy, nothing. And who every day put their finger to the wind to see what the people wanted next. I would get back to the Foggy Bottom office and my phone lines would be lit up with the press having been backgrounded by Baker or Deaver or Meese or [Larry] Speakes, under Baker's direction. And it is my view that where lives are involved, the American people want to be in on the takeoff as well as the landing.

Repeating the misjudgments of Vietnam

The other reasons are more substantive, and I said to the President: You're repeating the misjudgments of Vietnam - only aggravatingly so, because a covert program by its very nature brings with it a built-in incentive for the other side to repair the damage with relative ease, and face you with escalating levels of violence. Democracies are not very good at dealing with that. Ten years and 55,000 American dead in Vietnam should have taught us something. That's exactly what happened. As soon as the contras became effective, modestly effective, in came the MI-24 helicopters from Moscow, through Havana, drove them back into sanctuary in neighboring states where they remain largely, though not exclusively, hunkered down today. Always waiting for the next $100 million stipend.

The real villains - Moscow and Havana

Now the real reason I was opposed is that it doesn't deal with the strategic dimension of Central America. What is that strategic dimension? Democracy? Not at all. The strategic dimension is the violation of international law by Castro's Cuba and the Soviet Union, and intervening in the internal affairs of Central American republics, and that's the vehicle and the focus of what that policy should be anchored to. What we did - well, when I was secretary, no one could ever talk about the issue of Marxism in Nicaragua, and I always spoke to violations of international law by the Soviet Union and Cuba. And frankly, we should anchor to the degree we can - there are always contradictions - but we should anchor our foreign policy on an advocacy for rule of law. For peaceful change and rejection of bloodshed, terrorism, and wars of liberation.

If the people of Nicaragua by their own free sovereign choice, through self-determination, chose Marxism, I'm afraid we Americans would have no other alternative but to accept that and let them stew in their own juice. Now I can say that with some complacency, because I'm absolutely confident that the Hispanic and the Indian traditions of the Nicaraguan people would have thrown Marxism out very early on, had it been their free choice to do so.

What we have been doing, in effect, is proclaiming a Brezhnev doctrine of our own for Central America. In other words, insisting we have the right to determine what kind of regimes Central Americans are entitled to have.

The democratic delusion

There is a great wave of enthusiasm coming out of the State Department that we've democratized Central America. Hogwash! We have not. And let me tell you, that brings us to the second phase of our policy in Central America.

And that's the social-justice issue: We have not in seven years done one coherent thing. I was the father of the Caribbean Basin Initiative. I cooked it up late one night, during the visit of the President of Jamaica - the first visitor to Washington, when there wasn't a single thing approved by the White House to offer that poor fellow, who was a struggling, emerging democratic leader. I called David Rockefeller on the phone and said, we've got to do this, we've got to do that, and I went to the private sector at midnight to put together the first outlines of the Caribbean Basin Initiative. And that's the only way the poor President got home with the skin on his back. But we have sabotaged it, we have not implemented it, we have conditioned it through special-interest-group legislative action in collusion with the White House which has made the whole thing a farce.

The weight of third-world debt

Now what is the greatest problem in Central America today in the area of social justice? The greatest problem is that every one of these ``emerging democracies'' is hanging on by its fingernails under the weight of third-world debt.

We have done nothing about third-world debt, other than to apply annual band-aids and pumping good money after bad. If you'll think back a few months ago, the first meeting of Latin American governments without an American president was held in Mexico City. We weren't even invited! An incredible change in the demeanor of our neighbors in this hemisphere. This third-world debt has put every democratic leader in jeopardy, whether you're looking at Brazil, or Argentina, or some of the less notorious important governments. Right now we are threatening to become a pariah in this hemisphere. There is a strong animosity because of this debt, and the servicing obligations, and our failure to deal with it.

Anybody who kept tabs on the international climate in East-West relations knew by 1980 that the Soviet Union was in deep trouble. Not as a result of the vision of American policy - the visionary character of it - but as a result of internal contradictions in the Soviet system: economic, demographic, ideological, as well as a crisis of transition of leadership. And the opportunities were wonderful, as they still are, to - through carrots and stick - effect moderation in Soviet policy for however long.

Flaws in Arias plan

Now, why is the Arias plan flawed? Because it too fails fundamentally to deal with the strategic dimension of the problem - and it's not Marxism or the suppression of social justice in Nicaragua, but Cuban and Soviet intervention. And if you don't start there, you're going to fail.

We've created a contra movement, so it's never easy to deal with these things in test tubes or give you those kinds of clear-cut policy. Unfortunately, last night [the Feb. 3 House vote against contra funds] we decided to cut and run. Even though I disagree with the policy, once we did it, our credibility as a nation is again at stake and we're going to be a laughingstock in Havana, and in Moscow, and throughout Central America. So I would have continued to support the contras. But if in '88 some miracle occurs and I end up in the White House, I'll focus on two lines:

First, to get the Cubans and the Soviets out, and second, to deal with the problem of third-world debt, and the need to recognize that you're never going to have social justice in societies where poverty and special privilege and deprivation are the fundamental materials with which you are dealing.

How to get the Cubans and Soviets out

A degree of linkage between things that the Soviets wanted and things we want is a fact of life. To have the vice-president stand up and say, ``We've discarded linkage,'' is discarding a fundamental reality you don't have the luxury of accepting or rejecting. No normalization process with the USSR can continue on a selective basis, if they continue to rape the third world. And anybody that believes that has paid no attention to history. That's what happened to the SALT agreement. And it's what happened since World War II in almost every warm-up period in East-West relations. It became the victim of some outrage of Soviet policy, whether it was Czechoslovakia or Hungary or Poland. There is linkage. It's not an option. It's a reality. And I believe we have enough hunger in Moscow for normalization, for Western credit, for international legitimacy, for technology, to take targets of opportunity and resolve them at the negotiating table.

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