French arms for Nicaragua

Washington is miffed at France for deciding to sell military equipment to the revolutionary government of Nicaragua.But instead of getting irritated about the sale the Reagan administration might actually see merit in it. The French have a point when they say that Nicaragua's request for aid is a sign it does not wish to depend solely on Moscow or Cuba for military assistance and that refusing such a request only drives the Sandanistas into the arms of the Soviet bloc.

It would be unrealistic to think that France alone can keep the Sandanista government from moving in repressive directions. But this modest sale of defensive arms could give it some influence in Managua. The new socialist French government, after all, is fiercely anti-Soviet and, while it favors a socialist system in Nicaragua, it would wish to do everything possible to reduce the Soviet and Cuban influence. In fact, the more that West Europeans and Latin nations themselves become involved in Central America - and the less the US involves itself militarily - the better.

Secretary of State Haig's concern about the present course in Nicaragua is understandable. The jailing of Nicaraguan businessmen, the repeated closing down of the independent newspaper La Prensa, and the emergencce of more radical elements in the leadership are disturbing developments. They belie the avowed goals of the revolution, which was to bring about sweeping social reforms and promote a pluralistic society. Certainly the West and Latin America cannot be indifferent to the establishment in Nicaragua of an out-and-out Marxist state like that in Cuba, one bent on fostering similar revolutions in neighboring Central American states.

But it is question whether cutting off all US aid to Nicaragua and constantly condemning the Sandinistas is an effective means of dealing with the problem. It may be true that arms are being funneled through Nicaragua and Honduras to the rebels in El Salvador. But demanding that Nicaragua totally stop the arms flow before resuming US aid seems unrealistic, given the impossibility of completely sealing off the long borders. Also, the administration has yet provided no proof of massive arms smuggling.

From the Sandinista point of view, moreover, Washington's winking at the training of Nicaraguans in the Miami area for ''counterrevolution'' hardly creates confidence in US good will. On the contrary, it encourages the Nicaraguan military buildup.

Logically, the US and Nicaragua ought to sit down and talk all this out. Merely railing at the Nicaraguan regime, however deplorable its actions, seems only to push it in the wrong direction. The Sandinistas above all do not want to be seen buckling in to their mighty northern neighbor. That is why the French move could prove to be a salutary one, helping Nicaragua to lessen its dependence on the communist bloc and giving a West European nation rather than the resented US the opportunity to try to influence events in a constructive, democratic direction.

The French gamble may not work, of course. But surely it deserves a try.

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