Scrounging for `contra' aid

IS the United States pursuing an impossible dream in Nicaragua? The answer depends on US goals. If nothing less than removal of the Marxist-led Sandinista government would satisfy the White House -- as the administration denies but Congress continues to suspect -- the answer is probably ``yes.'' Any proposal for US troops to intervene would face intense, well-deserved opposition in Congress and among US allies.

If, by contrast, the goal is to keep the Sandinistas from spreading their brand of government and, possibly, to persuade Managua to further democratize its rule, the outlook is brighter.

Increased Central American stability is the aim of the Contadora treaty. Though the parties are closer to agreement on arms limits and military maneuvers than they were, the treaty now appears to be on indefinite hold.

The $100 million in aid that President Reagan wants for the ``contras'' who are fighting the regime in Managua is unlikely to make much difference in either scenario. The package has been approved by the Senate, and the House will reconsider its earlier rejection June 26. Congressional doubt about how effectively the money may be spent has been fueled by a recent General Accounting Office report charging that much of the $27 million earmarked last year for the contras was diverted. Any aid approved is likely to carry strings and be linked to broader economic help for the region.

President Reagan, who is meeting again with congressional aid supporters this week, points to stepped-up Soviet links to Nicaragua in everything from supplies to reconnaissance flights to bolster his case.

He has appealed for a bipartisan approach to solving the Nicaraguan dilemma. Both Democrats and Republicans share his concern over the spread of communism. But they are far from united on what can be done about it.

Washington should take a balanced, in-depth look at the degree to which Managua has headed down the Marxist-Leninist road and decide what, if anything, it can do, as the President says, ``while there is still time.'' Unlike Cuba, Nicaragua has no blank-check arrangement with the Soviets. It has more than once asked for and been refused a financial bailout. Moscow has repeatedly rejected Managua's requests for supersonic fighters and advanced weapons. As yet more than 60 percent of Nicaragua's economy is in private hands, forcing attention to markets, creditworthiness, and other traditional free-enterprise concerns. The Sandinistas have constituted a notably repressive government, but they have nonetheless felt an obligation to make at least a pretense of a turn to democratic processes and institutions.

It is true that Washington's trade embargo on Managua has not been very effective. The Sandinistas, who have forged closer trade links with both Eastern and Western Europe as a result of it, estimate that the US embargo cost Nicaragua a modest $50 million last year. In a recent study the Center for International Policy and Overseas Development Council branded the embargo a ``tactical mistake'' for the United States.

Washington could try a more positive approach of influence by trade, investments, and loans. It could also step up its influence through stronger support of the political rather than the military opposition to the Sandinistas and forge a closer alliance with the four other Central American democracies participating in the Contadora negotiations.

It is worth remembering, as top administration officials frequently point out, that 90 percent of all Latin Americans now live under democratic rule. White House troubleshooter Philip Habib calls Nicaragua the only ``aberration'' in Central America. Unless one believes that Marxism of every shade has an inevitable domino effect on neighboring countries, why could not political and economic pressure from the US and the increasing number of democracies in the Western Hemisphere exert a moderating influence on Nicaragua?

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