The Nicaraguan initiative: Will it work?

PRESIDENT Reagan's initiative on behalf of the ``contras'' in Nicaragua, like his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), flows from his strong belief in a patriotic objective. The purpose of SDI is to make the United States secure from a nuclear attack. Mr. Reagan's aim in Nicaragua is to remove the threat of a communist regime in Central America. In his enthusiasm for his plan in Nicaragua, as with SDI, the President skirts one significant question: Will it work?

The Reagan administration is carrying on its promotion of aid to the contras on the basis of emotional, rhetorical arguments about democracy, freedom, patriotism, the perils of communism, and the nature of the Sandinistas.

On the other side are arguments, at times equally rhetorical, about Vietnam, international law, human rights violations, and morality.

The battle in the United States Congress revolved around loyalty to the President or to the Speaker of the House, the budget crisis and the effect of a member's vote among constituents. The conclusion of both friends and foes of the program appears to be that ultimately President Reagan will get his way, because members of Congress do not want to be tagged as friendly to a communist regime.

It is difficult to hear anyone, above the din of the rhetoric, who is facing up to the question of whether the fundamental premises of the Nicaraguan initiative are sound. If one accepts the Reagan administration's statements that its objective is not to overthrow the Sandinista government, but merely to change its nature, and that this can be accomplished without the introduction of United States military forces, then the premises are three:

That congressional approval of military assistance to the contras will mean that that many more in Nicaragua will join the rebel fighting force. The administration insists that they are merely waiting to see whether the United States is serious in its determination to change the character of the Nicaraguan government.

That other Central American countries, including those that support the Contadora process, will rally to the support of the ``freedom fighters.'' The President and his advisers clearly believe that Latin American leaders really support what we are trying to do but that they are reluctant to take a public stand on our behalf because they are uncertain of our seriousness.

That a renewed military effort by the contras will create popular pressures on the Sandinistas to negotiate with the rebels. A corollary scenario is that the rebels will have enough military success to cause a breakdown in Nicaragua that will force a change in the regime.

These premises may be correct, but what is distressing to the observer is that there seem to be so few acknowledged experts on Central America who think so.

As one talks with Latin American diplomats in the circle of the Organization of American States or with many who have lived and worked in Central America, one finds opinions ranging from strong feelings that the premises are wrong to deep skepticism.

They doubt that substantial numbers of Nicaraguans will rally to the rebel cause. They have serious questions about whether Latin American countries, other than those closely involved with the United States effort, will publicly back a movement seen as inspired and supported by the United States. None believes that the Sandinistas will enter a negotiation that risks eroding their power.

Those in the Reagan administration who know Latin America strongly disagree with these views, but their political commitment to the President and their own ideological emotions make their assessments suspect. Those who were most visible around President Reagan in the recent debate can claim no real knowledge of the region. Ambassador Philip Habib, the President's principal negotiator, had made only the briefest of visits after returning from the Philippines.

As has happened in other crises and other administrations, experts whose voices should be heard are pushed aside in favor of those who provide assessments that the President wants to hear.

With both the Stategic Defense Initiative and the Nicaraguan initiative, President Reagan has used his tremendous powers to push for objectives that a substantial number of experts consider to be unrealizable. If, as most predict, he will in the end win at least qualified support for his Nicaraguan initiative, it would appear to be not because there is a strong conviction within the Congress that the plan will work but because the President has been able to plant in that body a fear of the domestic political consequences of opposing him.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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