What Reagan needs: flexible policy, not rigid doctrines

THIS month marks the 39th anniversary of the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine. As stated in the message that President Truman delivered to Congress: ``I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.'' This was the extrapolation of a proposal to meet a specific crisis in Greece and a lesser one in Turkey. It was at least partly the result of advice Mr. Truman got from Capitol Hill that his Greek-Turkish rescue operation would have a better chance of approval if it were cast as part of a larger, anticommunist program.

The Reagan Doctrine has now gone a step further. Truman only wanted ``to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.'' Mr. Reagan wants to support what he calls ``freedom fighters'' who are trying to overthrow established governments. Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, and Cambodia are current cases in point.

Truman's policy toward Greece and Turkey was sensible and successful, but his doctrine led to many confusions and difficulties in other countries. Mainly, it led to prolonged American support of unpopular authoritarian but anticommunist governments. When, predictably, these governments were overthrown, American interests suffered. The trouble with the doctrine was that it inhibited case-by-case, country-by-country consideration of policy.

So it is with the Reagan policies and doctrines. It is one thing to help, quietly and unobtrusively, rebels in Afghanistan and Cambodia, though in the latter case it is difficult to be sure who is on which side. It serves American interests to contribute to Soviet difficulties in Afghanistan, always provided that the American role is kept sufficiently modest that it does not lead to larger commitments. After all, what we are doing in Afghanistan is no more (maybe less) than the Soviets did to contribute to our difficulties in Vietnam.

Nicaragua and Angola are different cases entirely. After more than 10 years, Angola is still trying to solidify its first postcolonial government. At the same time, it is caught up in the broader problem of South African disengagement from Namibia.

The US is not well informed about Angola and the government does not have a diplomatic establishment to report on conditions there. The news media have been derelict. We do know that the Gulf Oil Corporation operates in Angola and that communist Cuban troops protect American capitalist property from the freedom fighters whom the administration wants to aid. The head of those freedom fighters, Jonas Savimbi, was in Washington recently lobbying furiously for US help. His campaign was planned and managed by a US public relations firm for a fee reported to be $600,000. It would be interesting to know where the money came from.

Mr. Savimbi is being helped by South Africa. If the US now also helps him, that allies the US with South Africa, and a greater blow to the American position in the rest of black Africa would be hard to imagine.

In Nicaragua, we are dealing with a government which we recognize and with which we maintain diplomatic relations. Thanks to this and to a more diligent press, we are much better informed about Nicaragua.

A good deal of the debate about American policy toward Nicaragua has degenerated into name-calling. The administration talks about how bad the Sandinista government in Managua is. Opponents talk about how bad the rebels are.

Both sides are correct, and this is a sterile argument. It can be stipulated that the Sandinistas run a bad, oppressive government and that the ``contras'' are not only mistreating people at the present time but most likely would also run a bad, oppressive government if given the opportunity.

The administration is also making a phony debater's point of the fact that the Sandinistas use what influence they have in the US to encourage opposition to aiding the contras. The implication is that opponents of the aid have somehow allowed themselves to be duped. This is childish. Of course, the Sandinistas encourage opposition to the contras. By the same token, the contras have been busily working the other side of the street with everyone who will listen. Jonas Savimbi did the same thing. This is a flimsy basis on which to make American foreign policy.

How much aid to the contras would it take to overthrow the Sandinistas and install a pro-US government in Managua? Would any amount of aid be sufficient, absent a more direct involvement by US troops? The American military presence in neighboring Honduras is already substantial and is meant to be long term if not permanent. It rests on a shaky political and legal foundation. Beyond a pie-in-the sky change of government in Managua, no one has thought through what lies at the end of the road down which we have started. That ought to be done before we go any further.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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