Embargo --to what end?

APPRAISAL of a Reagan embargo on Nicaraguan trade should begin by observing the administration's own low regard for such embargoes as a foreign-policy device. At the same time the White House is moving toward sanctions against Nicaragua, it is arguing against them in regard to United States relations with South Africa. In the South African case, sanctions are ostensibly opposed because they would make diplomatic negotiations more difficult. It is hard to see how that is less true in Nicaragua. Secretary of State George Shultz cautions not to expect more than a minimal impact on the Sandinistas from sanctions that include a trade embargo, a halt in air traffic between Nicaragua and the US, and renunciation of a friendship treaty, but stop short of a break in diplomatic ties.

If economic sanctions are admittedly not effective, why impose them?

What the administration sacrifices in consistency it offsets in other ways. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega's visit to the Kremlin on the heels of the House defeat of $l4 million in contra aid was provocative. It was unwise. Many in Congress who opposed the aid, concerned it would lead to US armed intervention or worried the administration really intended to overthrow Ortega, were nonetheless unhappy with the Sandinistas; the congressmen felt vulnerable to the charge that they might be held accountable for Ortega's Castro-Gorbachev ties. Economic sanctions, effective or counterproductive, were a way to signal US intent to continue pressure on Managua. Sanctions enable the administration to keep the semblance of policy initiative following congressional defeat on contra aid.

Sanctions are akin, really, to the armed disruption promoted through the contras : The administration's hopes are either to crunch the Nicaraguan government's resolve and compel it to agree to negotiate with the contra leadership -- ``Cry uncle,'' as the President put it -- or to promote by economic restrictions a popular unrest that would lead to the overthrow of the regime.

The risks should be obvious. The United States does not have sufficient support for its Nicaraguan sanctions from potential Nicaraguan trade partners to make an embargo effective for long. If concern that destabilization of the region might lead to a surge of unrest and migration northward, it is hard to see how sanctions would enhance stability. Middle-class Nicaraguans, who depend on US trade for items like fertilizer and farm equipment and who presumably represent a residual anti-Sandinista, pro-democratic base, are hurt by the undermining of the Nicaraguan economy. If the Sandinista link to the Soviet Union is worrisome, do sanctions not drive Managua all the more toward reliance on the Kremlin?

Even the timing of the sanctions announcement is of note. It came as the President was heading to Europe, dislodging from the front pages the uproar over his planned visit to the Bitburg cemetery. One remembers that it was in the midst of the administration's trouble over the Marines in Lebanon that the Grenada invasion was launched.

The administration itself cannot be happy with its fallback on sanctions. The President has reportedly resisted such a step. But the administration has, after all, been in charge of US policy toward Central America for more than four years now. It can point to some successes, as in El Salvador where an elected government holds its own against insurgency and makes human rights gains.

However, as the continuing divisiveness over Central American policy shows, it has failed to fashion a plan for regional stability that achieves sufficient national support. This is unfortunate. Even sanctions, to be effective, must be linked to an expectable result or plan. In this case, they seem principally a stopgap measure.

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