Underlying import of `contra' debate

WHEN the United States House of Representatives resumes debate over aid to the Nicaraguan ``contras'' next Tuesday, more is going to be involved than just the future of US policy toward Central America. What will be at stake is the ``Reagan Doctrine'' of supporting anti-Soviet resistance movements in the third world. Up to now the debate has been big on emotional exaggeration and short on serious analysis. The administration portrays its favorite guerrilla fighters as ``the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.'' They are most certainly not that. They can't be. Modern guerrillas in developing nations belong to a different tradition and operate under different circumstances than American revolutionaries did. They also face a very different enemy.

Part of the credit for the admirable conduct of the Founding Fathers should go to the British. Butchers they were not. The British did not have weapons of mass destruction. And they adhered to civilized standards in dealing with civilians. To expect that Afghan tribesmen subjected to indiscriminate attacks of Soviet helicopter gunships would behave like Washingtons and Jeffersons would be unrealistic and unfair.

But critics of the Reagan Doctrine who tend to dismiss the ``contras'' in Nicaragua and UNITA partisans in Angola as respective United States and South African mercenaries engage in an even greater fallacy. In both cases we are dealing with authentic movements. Nobody forces thousands of Nicaraguans and Angolans to risk their lives fighting Marxist-Leninist regimes. It is true that most contra commanders came from Somoza's National Guard. So what? It was the only Nicaraguan army before the Sandinistas came to power. Since contra officers are not trained at West Point, it was virtually inevitable that most of them would have a National Guard background. But it does not follow that the contras, with their democracy-oriented political leadership and largely peasant rank and file, are the heirs of the Somoza dictatorship.

In Angola, Jonas Savimbi's troops were forced by geography to rely on South African support. But surely no one seriously believes that UNITA would like to introduce apartheid in Angola.

Emotions aside, the United States has to decide how the new phenomenon of anti-Soviet resistance movements fits into US international strategy. To say that such movements do not always appear to be knights on white horses and that aiding them involves costs and risks is simply to state the obvious -- the Soviet empire cannot be contained cheaply.

After the US overreacted to Soviet geopolitical advances in the late '70s, there is a tendency today to underestimate the Kremlin's potential for expansionism in the third world. Sure, the Soviets appear to feel somewhat overextended. The Kremlin is careful about making additional commitments. But Moscow is not on the run. New opportunities, too attractive to ignore, will sooner or later present themselves. And Mikhail Gorbachev is vigorous and creative, not only in terms of offering new arms control initiatives but also in attempting to cut the US down to size.

There is nothing automatic about the Soviet sense of overextension. One reason is an unexpectedly stubborn opposition on the ground from groups like the contras and UNITA. Another is a concern that excessive assertiveness may lead to a dangerous confrontation with the US. Remove these constraints and the Soviet expansion machine may well accelerate again.

The US has only so many policy tools with which to confront the Soviet challenge. And none come free of cost. Upgrading US defenses takes funds away from domestic priorities. And there is always a danger of destabilizing the strategic balance in an overly enthusiastic pursuit of military competition. Relying on diplomacy is necessary but insufficient. Attempts to link arms control agreements to Soviet third-world conduct have never worked. The result was that more often than not we overburdened arms control and got neither arms deals nor Soviet geopolitical moderation.

The Reagan Doctrine did not invent opposition forces in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua. But its genius was to appreciate the new phenomenon and to incorporate it into US foreign policy. The administration's rhetorical overkill has unfortunately confused the issue. The issue is not the struggle of good against evil. The issue is not how to overthrow Marxist-Leninist governments. The issue is not whether communists may appear on the beaches of San Diego.

Rather, the US has to determine how to respond to new third-world forces seeking US support against a common adversary -- the USSR. In each case there are regional considerations against upping the ante. But do they outweigh the overwhelming political and moral imperative to counter Soviet imperial assertiveness?

The Reagan Doctrine is not a panacea. No panaceas exist in dealing with a growing Soviet global presence. But to reject it may mean to miss a major opportunity to constrain the USSR geopolitical drive right there on the ground. Not only the policy of containment but also of arms control would be likely to suffer in the process.

Dimitri K. Simes is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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