IN the aftermath of the congressional debate over aid to the Nicaraguan contras, opponents of the aid are being described as naive, soft on communism, and symbols of a lack of national will. Such assertions do a disservice to loyal and conscientious Americans who have a different view of how to meet a Soviet-Cuban threat in the hemisphere. Among most of those who oppose aid to the contras, there will be agreement on the abhorrent character of the communist system, on the tragic consequences of our loss in Vietnam, and even on the freedoms, compared with communist societies, in the imperfect regimes we call our friends. These issues, however, are not at the heart of the argument. The debate should be only over the most effective approach for the United States in now preventing the creation of further centers of Soviet influence.
An effective approach in Central America rests on a proper assessment of the nature of the threat to our interests and an accurate forecast of the likely effect of our response on local circumstances.
In Vietnam, the threat was seen by the US largely as part of the continuous efforts of the Soviet-Chinese bloc (even then beginning to split), following in the patterns of Eastern Europe and Korea. Less attention was paid in early assessments to the strength of Vietnamese nationalism and the risks of inheriting France's unpopular cause.
The internal weaknesses of South Vietnamese regimes were recognized, but not profoundly enough. Criticisms of the South Vietnamese government's human rights practices were turned aside with the argument that the Saigon government was still better than the communists. Too few recognized that that was not the issue. Whatever may be the ultimate harshness of a communist regime, the movement benefits in its early stages from grass-roots support generated by disillusionment with an existing regime. Our identification with an oppressive government, marked by a conspicuous gap between wealth and poverty and gross violations of human dignity, severely weakens our credibility and our influence, wherever it may be.
Our response in Vietnam was flawed by a faulty assessment of the threat. Even the advice of respected senior US military leaders that we should never again fight a land war in Asia was ignored.
In the case of Nicaragua, proponents of contra aid have not made a credible case that the nature of the threat requires the response we are making. News reports cast doubt on administration assertions of massive Soviet aid and minimize effective Nicaraguan links to insurgent groups in nearby countries.
There are sharp differences over whether our response to the Sandinistas has triggered greater aid from the Soviets and Cubans or whether that aid was already on the way. Our latest economic sanctions will appear to many to be an escalation of confrontation that will lead Nicaragua to further dependence on the Soviets and the Cubans. This policy of pressure will succeed only if Managua agrees to talk with the contras or if there is an internal uprising. Few experts feel that either possibility is likely at least, in the short term. The Carter administration, initially, and the Reagan government concluded that a Marxist regime would, per se, become a Soviet outpost. Might our approach have been more acceptable regionally if we had left the internal affairs of Nicaragua to the Nicaraguans but made it clear we would react strongly to any Soviet military bases in that country? Our adversaries are the Soviets, not the Nicaraguans.
In the case of Cuba, earlier, and Nicaragua now, our initial responses were partly covert. As our role became public, it awakened the strong feelings of other Latin American countries about US intervention.
Preventing the establishment of unfriendly regimes capable of threatening our interests requires that we take a cold look at the nature of the threat, recognize the limitations and possible effects of our involvement, and have a clear idea of where we are going before we commit ourselves and others to sanctions and military solutions. It may be no easier to take the route of diplomacy, but it is more acceptable regionally and avoids the complications that now evoke serious misgivings in Congress and the public.
A recognition of the character and threat of communist regimes is present on both sides of today's argument. Casting doubt on the patriotism or wisdom of citizens who disagree with the policy does not further the cause of a national consensus. The debate is not over whether we should or should not prevent further threats to our interests; it is over how.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.