President Reagan is seeking to keep US rearmament on a fast track and boost American support for anti-communist ``freedom fighters'' around the world. Will the public and Congress go along?
That is the question vexing the administration as the President launches an effort to sell his continued military buildup and security policies. Today Mr. Reagan travels to Grenada to highlight the island's liberation from Marxism as a result of the United States invasion in 1983 and to reaffirm Washington's desire to promote democracy in the region [Story, Page 4].
Determined to roll back communist gains, the President is also pressing Congress to boost US support for the Nicaraguan rebels fighting the Sandinista government. According to US officials, the administration is asking for $100 million in aid, including $70 million in military assistance and $30 million in humanitarian, or ``nonlethal,'' aid. The present $27 million humanitarian aid package expires March 31. The new aid package would run from April 1 through the end of fiscal 1987.
On another front, the Reagan administration disclosed this week that it has decided to provide Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi with covert military support in his fight against the Marxist government of Angola. The aid, thought to be about $15 million, will be provided out of Central Intelligence Agency funds.
Next week Mr. Reagan will also deliver a nationally televised address on national security, stressing the need to maintain a strong defense.
The President's fundamental message is that it is the strong United States military posture that has drawn a line against Marxist expansion in the Caribbean and Central America, brought the Soviets back to the arms negotiation table, and led to the first superpower summit meeting. Now is the time to demonstrate continued resolve, Reagan argues, and not send Moscow the wrong signal by reducing defense spending or retreating from the goal of curtailing communist influence in the world.
But even as Mr. Reagan begins the hard sell for his security policies, Congress and the public are having doubts about huge increases for defense at a time of a stringent budget squeeze. Many lawmakers also oppose providing military assistance to the ``contras'' or to Mr. Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), for policy and deficit-reduction reasons.
``It may well be that the first victims of Gramm-Rudman are UNITA and the contras,'' Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D) of New York, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters yesterday. ``It will be extra difficult for the administration to persuade Congress to approve substantial amounts of funding for controversial insurgencies elsewhere in the world at the same time the Congress is being asked to support massive cuts in all sorts of domestic programs.''
Meanwhile, there has been a decided swing in public attitudes since Reagan came into office, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll.
Five years ago 72 percent of the American people supported higher funding for the military. Today only 22 percent do. Most Americans favor reductions in the Defense Department to help reduce the deficit, the poll finds. And 53 percent think it is a ``bad idea'' for the US to help try to overthrow pro-communist governments.
The administration faces an uphill battle with Congress on both the defense and aid-for-insurgents issues. Many lawmakers, especially House Democrats, feel that by helping the Angolan rebels the United States would be aligning itself with South Africa, thereby undermining its credibility throughout Africa.
As for the Nicaraguan contras, all the House Democrats who voted for humanitarian assistance last year have urged the President to seek a diplomatic solution of the conflict.
Reagan argues that the Sandinista regime is receiving massive amounts of sophisticated weapons from the Soviet Union and Cuba, including attack helicopters, to put down the contras. He also indicates he will hold talks with the Sandinistas only if they agree to talk with the rebels.
The specter of another Cuba in the Western Hemisphere clearly haunts administration thinking. ``Certainly the potential is there for another Cuba, and Cuba certainly provides a considerable toehold for Soviets and anti-American regimes, and Nicaragua stands to be a repetition of Cuba,'' said White House spokesman Larry Speakes yesterday.
Meeting with GOP leaders this week, the President stated that the $27 million in nonlethal aid to the contras was mere ``Band-Aids and mosquito nets.'' There must be more effective aid, he said, and the restrictions on it should be lifted.
Congress in 1984 banned military assistance for the Nicaraguan rebels and required that the funds approved be used solely for medical supplies, clothing, and other nonlethal items.