A DEBATE is currently raging in the op-ed pages, journals, and conferences over who or what in the United States led to the ``victory'' in the cold war. Ideological conservatives insist that the determining factor was Ronald Reagan's policy of strength and confrontation. In that light, most recently, the Nicaraguan contras are seen as the indispensable element of force that led to the Sandinista election defeat.
Others argue that the United States was peripheral to the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev to reform a collapsing Soviet system; to them, Ronald Reagan's policies, if anything, complicated the task of assessing and helping change. The Nicaraguan corollary holds that it was the peace plan of President Arias of Costa Rica that brought change in Managua; the contras were a complicating factor.
Each side pursues its argument by exaggerated descriptions of the attitudes of the other. Conservatives are pictured as lovers of tyrants; liberals as pro-communist.
Both sides claim preeminence in the promotion of democracy and human rights. The conservatives conveniently forget their record of favoritism for some undemocratic regimes and their denigration of the human rights emphases of Jimmy Carter. Liberals play down their silence on the excesses of leftist governments.
Such arguments are less part of a serious debate on US foreign policy than they are an effort by the ideological extremes of the nation's political spectrum to win domestic victories over opponents. Not only are such debates fruitless - because no clear answers are currently available - but they divert thought and effort from a discussion of how to approach today's issues. They dwell on the past, not the present or the future.
The substance of this debate should be left to the historians. We cannot know the answers until archives are opened and until the flood of information currently beginning to come from the East is more fully digested. But, even then, the debate will continue as historians dispute the findings.
Mainstream American historians will probably conclude that the events now taking place in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe - and reflected in Central America and in places in the third world - resulted from a combination of factors. They will point to the bipartisan consensus on the threat of communism and the policy of containment embodied in support for a strong defense matched by efforts at arms control.
Liberal revisionist historians will find evidence that we exaggerated the Soviet threat with consequences in Soviet policy and disastrous results in our own society exemplified by the Vietnam war. Conservative scholars will find counter evidence to support their views that the strength of the United States led to the collapse of communism and that, if there were setbacks along the way, they were the result of wimpish liberalism.
Whatever historians may conclude, the debate today is premature. It is too soon to declare victory for democracy and economic freedom. The structures of communism have collapsed and the Soviet control over Eastern Europe and even parts of the Soviet Union, itself, is being eroded, but what will replace that control is still not clear.
Remnants of the communist parties, now under other names, still seek power. Societies that have not known freedom are still struggling with the problems of creating institutions and processes. The possibilities of a reversion in some countries to authoritarian - even if noncommunist - rule cannot be excluded.
The issues of today are too serious to be subsumed in efforts to seeks gains over ideological adversaries within the United States. If this nation has been successful over many decades it is because the bulk of the population has eschewed the ideological extremes.
This country faces serious problems within and beyond its borders at the very moment in history when the forces it has opposed are in disarray. The national debate should focus on how to break the deadlock between administration and Congress over the allocation of our resources, what role the United States will play as a balancing force in the restructuring of Europe, how we can become more competitive as an economic superpower, and how Americans can restore national confidence at a time of unparalleled opportunity.
It is in our nature as a people to argue about the past. Perhaps, as with so many of our habits, it comes from our passion for sports - for the instant replay that will settle all arguments. Accurate instant replays do not exist in the world of foreign affairs and politics. Attempting to assess blame or credit for the happenings of yesterday is of little value in preparing for the future. It is time we moved on to the game at hand.