THE leaders of Nicaragua's four neighbors agree on their assessment of that contentious nation: They see Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua as a significant threat to their national security. Moreover, the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica agree on what US policy should be in Central America. They want the United States to support the Nicaraguan insurgent forces -- the contras -- and to promote the rapid growth of democracy in Central America through political, socioeconomic, and security assistance. I have recently returned from two trips to Central America, where I interviewed the region's top civilian and military leaders for a thesis. Central American leaders told me that they are ready to work together to promote the rapid growth of the democratic process and, in doing so, to advance their economies, improve the lives of their people, and maintain a sufficient national-security capability to protect their territory and institutions. Their concern and basis of cooperation is the political and military threat they perceive from the Marxist-Leninist government of Nicaragua.
Leaders of these countries are extremely concerned about the result of Nicaragua's military buildup of troops and offensive capability. They are afraid of what a political-military equation will ultimately mean for them. They point to Nicaragua's many troops (about 62,000 active-duty forces and roughly 57,000 reserves and militia); large quantities of military equipment (about 350 tanks and other armored vehicles); multiple-rocket launchers; patrol boats; about 30 helicopters, including MI-24/HIND D, the Soviet's best attack gunship); new military installations (Punta Huete airfield, which, when completed, will have Central America's longest military runway); and military advisers (Soviets, Cubans, East Germans, and Palestine Liberation Organization members).
A typical interview with a Central American official first centers on Nicaragua. When Central American leaders speak of Nicaragua, they speak of a war of ideas between what they themselves value, in terms of freedom and dignity, and the Marxist-Leninist values of the Sandinista government. After the subject of conflicting ideologies, these individuals next mention Nicaragua's military buildup; their fears of internal subversion, invasion, or both; and the uncertainty they feel for themselves, their families, and their region. ``Who will invest in the region while this situation continues?'' they ask.
The next topic of discussion is invariably US policy toward Central America, and Nicaragua in particular. Inevitably, individuals make positive comments about President Reagan but criticize some aspects of US policy. Central American leaders like President Reagan's strong leadership presence, but question the goals of US policy toward Nicaragua. They ask for a clear, definite policy. They support political, economic, and military pressure on Nicaragua, and they support the anti-Sandinista insurgents. One common view is: ``Support the resistance fighters. Let them regain control of their country. Give them enough help to do the job. Do not send your troops. Find other ways to keep up pressure if Congress cuts off aid to the contras.'' Surely they are pleased that Congress is in the process of again providing aid to the contras.
Asked what they want from the US, they commonly answer that they seek respect, consideration, recognition, and support. Respect refers to the political and economic difficulties they face. Recognition means US realization of and appreciation for their perception that they are fighting and dying for American freedoms.
As interviews return to the problems of Central America and the question of Nicaragua, it becomes evident very quickly that the US and Central America share many national-security interests and objectives. Central Americans say that they want to work together to develop rapidly the democratic process within their countries, or preserve and strengthen and possibly help others, as in the case of Costa Rica, the most advanced democracy of the region. They describe the need for economic aid, assistance in education and public health, and security assistance. They say they will cooperate to achieve these goals, a major psychological adjustment in the process of achieving success. The idea of forming either a regional-security triangle of Nicaragua's northern neighbors (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala), or of regional-security cooperation of those three plus Costa Rica, is strongly supported.
The timing is right to build on these desires of Central American leaders to cooperate for shared regional security. The US and countries of the region are tied together by agreement on the political, military, and strategic threats of Nicaragua, by our individual and collective security interests, and by common objectives of democracy, economic development, and social progress.
The National Bipartisan Commission on Central America -- the Kissinger Commission -- addressed all these issues. The administration presented legislation to Congress for acting on the initiatives suggested by this commission. In addition to support for the Nicaraguan insurgent forces, the appropriate US steps that will receive Central American support and move toward an improvement in our mutual security are a presidential reaffirmation of US policy; consultation with countries in Central America concerned with Nicaragua to devise a strategy based on our shared interests and objectives; and strong leadership within the US government to carefully structure, administer, and carry out US initiatives in cooperation with Central American countries.
Lt. Col. John W. Van de Kamp is an Air Force fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C.