ONE can understand the widespread unease about President Reagan's weekend decision to allow United States helicopters to carry Honduran troops into the border region to battle Nicaraguan forces. The problem in such a US action, as clearly stated by Indiana Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, is that it ``raises the risk of American involvement in that area.'' That the US decision was ostensibly based on a request for help from the President of Honduras may be beside the point. So too is the Hondurans' claim that their military action occurred in response to an incursion into Honduras by up to 1,000 Nicaraguan soldiers. That is not to say that legitimate requests for help from Honduras should go unheeded. Rather, it is to recognize that at this moment, the US public must be wary about becoming drawn into a conflict. That is especially the case regarding Central America.
Why ``at this moment''? Because of the turmoil now surrounding American foreign policy. Granted, the Honduran request apparently came directly from that nation's President, and was endorsed by the US State and Defense Departments. Still, the danger of miscalculation cannot be ignored. A US chopper could, for example, inadvertently make contact with Nicaraguan forces. At the same time, as it hardly seems necessary to mention, there is a wariness over the prospect of a military diversion from all the bad news about the Iran-contra affair. Secretary of State George Shultz was asked about this prospect during his testimony before the House yesterday. The secretary correctly replied that each foreign policy activity had to be considered on its own merits.
The Honduran operation is said to be winding down. The Hondurans do have legitimate concerns about the border region, called the Las Vegas salient.
Jurisdiction over the area, an inhospitable mountainous terrain, has long been disputed between the two nations, although a World Court decision a few years back recognized Honduran claims to the region. Most of the small, rural towns have been evacuated. Contras maintain bases there.
Pressure has been building within Honduras for some government action to ``reclaim'' the salient, both from the Nicaraguans, who make frequent sallies into the area, as well as the contras, who are detested by many, if not most, Hondurans. Opposition members of the National Assembly are expected to put pressure on the government about that territory when the Asssembly meets early next year. So this weekend's Honduran action may as much reflect internal Honduran politics as it does larger regional considerations. Indeed, in Honduran military thinking, the traditional adversary continues to be neighboring El Salvador, rather than Nicaragua.
Congress should require a careful accounting regarding direct US operations in Central America, lest all parties be inadvertently drawn into a larger - and unwelcome - conflict.