THE United States is engaged once more in a major national debate over policy toward Nicaragua. As often seems to be the case in controversies over foreign policy, the US is arguing over the wrong issues. The questions that fill the airwaves are these: Is the Sandinista regime totalitarian? Are those who oppose aid to the ``contras'' helping the Communists? Which of the Nicaraguan sides has the worst human rights record? Are these really the critical issues?
Most Americans, in the Congress or in the public, having watched the evolution of the regime in Managua, will agree that it would be better for the United States and the region to have another type of government in Nicaragua. The argument that those who oppose contra aid are helping the Communists has already backfired on those who made it.
Most Americans have come to accept that in a guerrilla war there are atrocities on both sides.
Concentrating on these questions means that other, more serious issues, are clouded or ignored: Are the objectives of the administration clear and realistic? The stated objective is to force the Sandinistas to negotiate with the contras. It is not hard, however, to read between the lines of administration statements the clear intention to supplant the Sandinista regime with one drawn from the contras. To many, in the Congress and in the public, the administration has not demon- strated that either is a realistic possibility. Focus on this issue in the national debate is rare.
How much support does US policy have among the other Central American states? The administration's response is that many local leaders support our policy privately but are hesitant to do so publicly. We have fallen into this trap before in other areas. If political leaders are not prepared to support a US policy publicly, that suggests that they realize such a policy lacks support among their own people. There are doubts about the degree of support even in those countries neighboring Nicaragua. This problem needs to be faced more directly.
Are there realistic alternatives to this policy? The alternatives are usually stated either as ``giving in to communism'' or a vague reference to the contadora process. There is at least one possible alternative: that of pulling back from active involvement in the internal affairs of Nicaragua, isolating that country diplomatically, strengthening the nations around it, and making it clear to all that we would take strong action if there were any evidence of foreign offensive military installations in the country. This alternative deserves to be more widely debated.
What will best serve long-term US national interests in Central America? There is little doubt that, for many in Central America, including moderates, the contras are seen less as an indigenous political movement and more as a US creation; US support awakens old images of gringo imperialism. In the years to come, we may face upheavals in other significant Central American countries, including Mexico. The US might be better positioned to deal with such problems if we rid the region of the Marxist Sandinista government now. On the other hand, the revival of military intervention, direct or indirect, seems to ignore Central American initiatives and sensitivities. Such a policy could lessen our credibility and our influence over the long term. This critical issue does not seem to be central to the current debate.
Does the US have its priorities right? While the attention of the President, his administration, and the Congress is focused almost totally on Nicaragua, other events are taking place, other issues are arising that may well be of deeper significance to US long-term national interests. The administration, while spend-ing enormous political capital on the Hill for the contras has stepped back from a fight over arms for Jordan and is looking warily at an arms request from Saudi Arabia at a time when Iranian forces are on the move and the Soviets are benefiting from the weaknesses of King Hussein of Jordan and other Western friends in the Middle East. Is the threat of a Nicaragua to the US that much greater than the consequences for the US and its allies of a stronger Soviet presence in the Middle East?
President Reagan is obviously deeply sincere in his feeling that the containment, if not the elimination, of the Sandinista regime is a major priority for the United States. After the public debate, the different assessments of experts, and the questionable signals from the area, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his policy is based on illusions regarding the strength and cohesion of the contras, the degree of support for these policies in the rest of Central America, and the relative importance of this issue in the global context.
We see ourselves in the US as hard-headed realists, but in fact we are exceedingly vulnerable to slogans like ``freedom fighters,'' to foreign politicians who say the things we want to hear, and to simplified approaches to complex issues. The administration and its allies in Central America are playing on this vulnerability to lead the country once more into actions based on uncertain premises. The administration may be right, but that judgment should be reached only after looking at the real issues.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.