THE growing United States support for contra rebels seeking to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government probably represents the most divisive foreign policy issue facing the United States. Yet, as was the case with Vietnam a generation ago, the terms of debate over this matter remain disturbingly unfocused. The Reagan administration has leveled an impressive, but thus far unsystematized, series of charges against the Sandinistas. With the House and the Senate having both already approved a $100 million package of military and humanitarian aid for the contras (dwarfing US commitments to the insurgencies in Afghanistan, Angola, and Cambodia), the primary nature of the Sandinista threat -- whether internal, regional, hemispheric, or global -- still remains unclear in the American public consciousness.
Contra aid opponents respond in an even more scattered manner. They include a loose coalition of isolationists, pacifists, and Sandinista apologists; but some aid opponents accept in whole or in part the litany of administration complaints against the Sandinistas, questioning instead either US timing (fighting first, negotiating later), the US target (shooting at Sandinistas, foot-dragging on South Africa and Chile), or the choice of allies (whose ``freedom-fighting'' instincts might have evoked a blush or two upon the faces of the American founding fathers).
A national consensus, whether for or against contra aid, is unlikely to develop any time soon. But while Americans continue to splinter on this issue, they might take some solace in knowing what the issue is. Why indeed does Nicaragua, of all places, deserve from the government the ``public enemy number one'' label implicitly plastered upon it by the US contra funding effort? And if a single reason cannot be ennunciated, can it at least be conceptualized as having primary, secondary, and tertiary components that the debaters may in turn assess?
Does the US object primarily to the Sandinista's internal repression and political illegitimacy? In that case does Daniel Ortega's record stand out even in Latin America? Is it worse than Castro's totalitarianism in Cuba? Worse than the military dictatorships in Pinochet's Chile and in Stroessner's Paraguay?
Is the US mostly concerned about the threat to Nicaragua's neighbors, Honduras and Costa Rica? Or with Sandinista support for left-wing insurgencies in El Salvador, Peru, and Colombia? If the danger is imminent, is the United States willing to commit American troops in defense of its democratic allies?
Or does the development of Nicaragua as a de facto Soviet military base rankle the United States most? In this case, isn't the quarrel at least as great with Mr. Gorbachev as with Mr. Ortega?
Or does some combination of these factors really drive United States policy? Is Washington implying that the constellation of charges leveled against Ortega paint him as the premier villain of the Western Hemisphere, whose presence can no longer be tolerated?
Or is US policy based on more pragmatic notions? After all, Castro's opposition is locked up or in exile. US Ambassadors Harry Barnes in Chile and Clyde Taylor in Paraguay, meanwhile, have encouraged opposition demands for a transition to democracy. But unlike Cuba and Nicaragua, the brutal internal repression of the Chilean and Paraguayan regimes is unaccompanied by any apparent inclination toward regional destabilization. Maybe the contra leadership's democratic elements, as embodied by former Nicaraguan government officials Arturo Cruz and Alfonso Robelo, have gained favor with the US mostly by default.
But what about the other contras? Even if Cruz and Robelo are deemed honorable, does the US place the same trust in Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) leaders Adolfo Calero and Enrique Bermudez? And what about the rank-and-file contras, at least some of whom reportedly raped, tortured, and killed scores of their fellow countrymen?
Over what central issue do proponents and opponents of contra aid really differ -- the extent of Sandinista repression relative to that of other governments, the magnitude of the Nicaraguan regional threat, the gravity of the Soviet connection, or the morality of United States contra allies?
A clarification by the administration of US goals and reservations, as well as a general outline of the American international approach to fighting human rights abuses, would be most welcome as a first step toward a rational debate on Nicaragua.
Robert Schilit is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.