THE trouble with the contra aid program is not with the purpose, but with the means toward achieving the purpose. The first avowed purpose is to prevent the establishment in Nicaragua of military bases for Soviet strategic weapons.
The second avowed purpose is to prevent the export of the Nicaraguan revolution to neighboring countries.
The third almost but not quite avowed purpose is to overthrow the present Nicaraguan regime and clear the way for the return of the political exiles, mostly now in Miami, who lost out in the civil war which ended in the overthrow of the old Somoza regime.
There is no quarrel in Washington or in any important political group in the United States with either the first or second of these three purposes. Put a question mark over the third. A good many Democrats and some Republicans question whether putting the old gang (which is what the contras really are) back in power in Nicaragua would lead to stable and effective government in Nicaragua. It would more likely mean the revival of a Somoza-type dictatorship by an oligarchy of the returned exiles.
But the present policy of backing the contras is neither the only nor the best method of gaining these objectives. It might work if the contras had been able to gain mass popular support. There is no evidence of such mass support. The hit-and-run raids of the contras inside Nicaragua have tended to consolidate popular support for the regime.
The contra program has had some success in containing the Nicaraguan revolution inside Nicaragua. The regime has been too busy defending itself to have had much time or resources for export. The contra support program, however, has hardly been necessary for this purpose.
The governments of Guatemala and Honduras have become more democratic and less tyrannical over the past several years. Costa Rica is a model of honest and democratic government. El Salvador has been making progress slowly. The rebels there have tended to recede into the hills.
The contra program is irrelevant to the purpose of keeping Soviet strategic weapons out of Nicaragua. They are not there now for the simple reason that the US would not tolerate them. Moscow has understood this ever since the Cuban missile crisis. There is an unwritten rule throughout Central America: Soviet strategic weapons are forbidden. If they show up, they will be taken out by the armed forces of the US.
The method of taking them out would depend on circumstances. Bombing is one method. Sending in the Marines is another. Moscow's acceptance of the rule is demonstrated by the fact that Moscow has declined to send modern fighter planes to Nicaragua. They have sent helicopters, which are tolerated, but not fighters, which are not.
In the long run it is the armed forces of the US which prevent Soviet strategic weapons from being planted anywhere in Central America or the Caribbean. So long as Washington says it, and means it, and is ready to act to enforce it, there will be no Soviet strategic weapons in the area.
Thus, the first purpose of supporting contras is already achieved without benefit of the contras.
The second purpose, of protecting Nicaragua's neighbors, is also in the process of being achieved by encouraging developments toward political democracy and by economic aid. Building democracy and developing prosperity are positive methods. They are working.
Then we come to the third, last, and controversial purpose of overthrowing the Ortega regime and letting the exiles back from Miami.
Can the contras do it?
Conceivably they might have done so had they gone back truly as ``liberators.'' But calling them ``freedom fighters'' has not persuaded the mass of the Nicaraguan people to rally to their side. They may be ``freedom fighters'' in Washington, but they look more like cattle thieves and murderers to the villagers of Nicaragua.
Mr. Ortega will be removed someday by time or his own behavior. He could be taken out sooner, if necessary, by the US Marines. But he is only strengthened by the contras.