Washington's new consensus on Central America

A new consensus on United States policy in Central America has emerged in recent months which offers hope for a broadly based, maybe even bipartisan, foreign policy toward that area. The new consensus crosses party lines and commands the broad center of the political spectrum. It not only offers hope for a way out of the Central American imbroglio, but it also leaves those who oppose US policy more and more on the fringes.

This new consensus is the result of both a learning process that has gone on within the administration and a considerable tempering of opposition views as the policy has evolved successfully.

On El Salvador, the consensus encompasses the following ingredients:

Strong support for the elected government of Jos'e Napole'on Duarte.

Support for military as well as economic assistance to El Salvador, both as a way of enabling the armed forces to carry the war against the guerrillas and as a means to give the US a handle to reform the military institution.

Conviction that the guerrillas do not have the popular support they seemed to enjoy three or four years ago. Therefore, while dialogue and negotiations with them are useful, a negotiated settlement is not now so pressing as once seemed to be the case.

Continued efforts at democratic reform in the labor, agrarian, judicial, and other areas.

On Nicaragua, there is also a high degree of consensus:

That Nicaragua has become a full-fledged Marxist-Leninist state. Daniel Ortega's visit to Moscow, attacks on the last vestiges of pluralism, and the recent clampdown on human rights erased all doubts on this score.

That Nicaragua should not be permitted to serve as a base for Soviet MIGs, which threaten both its neighbors and US interests in the area. No one wishes a repeat of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

That Nicaragua has aided and abetted the Salvadorean guerrillas (although the degree of that aid may still be open to dispute), and that such assistance must be stopped.

That Nicaragua's immense military buildup frightens and threatens its neighbors. Democratic Costa Rica has been in the forefront in urging a strong, continuing US presence in the region.

That pressure on the Sandinista regime, through the ``contra'' rebels or by other means, must be maintained. Such pressure has helped keep open the internal political process to a certain degree, and it has helped get Nicaragua to the bargaining table.

That the Contadora peace process, though useful to an extent, cannot be used as a substitute for US policy in the area. Some Democrats had been so distrustful of Reagan administration foreign policy that they wished to have Contadora serve in lieu of US policy, but that is of course entirely unrealistic and will not work. Hence the more modest expectations for Contadora, as a complement to US policy but not a substitute for it.

Toward the region in general there is also widespread consensus that the US needs to devote more attention to it, that we must put our relations on a more mature and long-term basis, that we require both economic and military assistance, that human rights as well as other US interests must be emphasized, that our concerns must be political (the democracy agenda) as well as strategic. The Kissinger Commission recommendations, albeit not always acknowledged, provide the base and rationale for US policy in

the area, even though not all its provisions have been enacted into law.

As the administration's policy has become more centrist and sophisticated, opposition to it has greatly diminished. Some prominent Democrats have been making foreign policy speeches on Central America that sound remarkably like administration policy. Privately (but never publicly!) they have few quarrels and say that Central America is no longer a major partisan issue.

One may still find quibbling about the emphases of various policy initiatives but little now about the basic policy thrusts. Those who still oppose US policy tend to be outside the mainstream.

The consensus, however, is greater in official Washington than it is in the country at large, where many church, university, and other activist groups are still fighting the 1980 election campaign.

Within the administration the successes have led to a certain complacency, to the feeling the Central America issue has been ``solved.'' That is also dangerous and produces the same kind of ``benign neglect'' that caused Central America to emerge as a major trouble spot in the first place.

Hence we need to maintain our attention to the area. On the multifaceted basis outlined earlier, a more sophisticated, nuanced, and mature policy toward Latin America can go forward.

Howard J. Wiarda is professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and director of American Enterprise Institute's Center for Hemispheric Studies.

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