Bankrolling the contras is not the answer

PRESIDENT REAGAN could put a lock on next year's Nobel Peace Prize. By undermining the Central American peace plan, he is missing a golden opportunity and may be committing the greatest foreign policy blunder of his administration. In recent weeks, the President called the Central American peace plan ``fatally flawed'' and repeated his view of the contras as the American insurance policy against duplicitous Sandinista behavior. This view is not shared by United States allies in Central America. Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias S'anchez of Costa Rica and the Presidents of four other Central American nations are united behind a plan that explicitly calls for the termination of aid to irregular forces. The contras did not bring Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra to the negotiating table; Nicaragua's neighbors did.

In the three months since the signing of the Guatemala agreement, there has been more progress toward peace than in the preceding six years. Dialogues have begun in El Salvador, Guatemala, and even in Nicaragua, where opposition parties are now organizing and testing the Sandinistas' commitment to the peace plan. But the agreement is not a panacea; it omits those issues that the parties do not have the power to control.

Soviet bases: President Kennedy settled this issue 25 years ago. Any US president must guarantee United States national-security interests directly threatened by the presence of Soviet bases in Nicaragua. Nicaragua cannot be allowed to jeopardize its neighbors and the US with offensive Soviet weapons.

Foreign military advisers: A cease-fire as envisioned in the Guatemala agreement would greatly decrease the need for foreign military advisers to the Sandinistas. Harder to negotiate will be the removal of other Soviet, Cuban, and East-bloc advisers - doctors, engineers, and mechanics - who have flocked to Nicaragua. The US should demand that the military advisers leave, and offer to replace the others with US personnel.

Regional arms race: Much has been said about the Soviet and Cuban pipeline of military hardware into Nicaragua. The Sandinistas have justified their buildup as preparation for the US invasion. The end of contra aid will eliminate this rationale; the countries of Central America, along with the US, can then make a credible demand for a military build-down in line with similar steps by all five nations.

These issues form the crux of US security concerns in the region. There is agreement in Congress that the Western Hemisphere is no place for Soviet forward bases, East-bloc advisers, and sophisticated weapons that threaten to destabilize US allies in the region. But contra aid is not the key to securing US goals in the region. These issues must be settled by direct US-Nicaraguan negotiations.

The administration also contends that contra aid will teach the Sandinistas good government. Human rights and political freedoms must be restored. But does contra aid ensure internal reform in Nicaragua? Quite the opposite.

For seven years, the Sandinistas have used the contra war as their excuse for crackdowns on the domestic opposition. Only the Sandinistas know whether the end of contra aid will bring an end to domestic repression. But the US has a range of policy tools, short of arming insurgencies, to encourage and maintain the political opening within Nicaragua.

Even if armed intervention were appropriate, one has to ask whether the contras are the true hope for democracy in Nicaragua. According to Rob Owen, Oliver North's ``courier,'' the contras see the war as a business. They await a US invasion to install them in power. To the Nicaraguan people, they remain a creature of the Central Intelligence Agency, sustained by an official US policy of deceit in which US tax dollars are supplemented by nefarious arms deals with Iran.

It's time for this administration to advance a Central America policy that has a hope of securing US interests. The US needs to deal directly with the Sandinistas. If the US goal is to bolster democratic change in Nicaragua, it is time to embrace and support the Arias plan.

The $270 million the administration proposes as contra aid should not be given. Instead, the US should restore the $160 million cut from the State Department budget over the last three years. The administration would rather bankroll the contras than the diplomatic corps. The rest of the contra aid request should be used to leverage contributions from the European Community and other international organizations to fund further application of the Guatemala agreement - establishing international missions of election observers and teams for cease-fire verification.

The contra war is not ``tough on communism.'' It is not pro-democracy. The US can either bolster the democratic opening made possible by the peace plan, or it can continue a senseless war that promises neither security for us nor democracy for Nicaragua. The choice should be clear.

US Rep. Edward Feighan (D) of Ohio is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

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