With the contras to the ends of the earth

LIKE a Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, President Reagan holds beyond all reason or sensible purpose to the goal of destroying the Sandinistas. And having once grasped the contras as his lightning-touched harpoon, the instrument of Sandinista destruction, he will not put them aside - as he told the Organization of American States Oct. 7 - so long as there is breath in his body. Never mind that they long ago proved a defective instrument. He will stick with them anyway. Thus, despite the Central American peace plan calling on all governments to end assistance to irregular forces in the area, the Reagan administration has made clear its intention to ask for another $270 million in aid to the contras, twice as much as it has ever before requested.

The administration bases this defiant request on two central arguments, neither of which bears close scrutiny. First, it maintains, the Sandinistas have at long last come to the negotiating table and signed an agreement only because of the pressures exerted on them by the contras. To paraphrase Secretary of State George Shultz: It is our contra policy that has got us this far; it would now be a tragic mistake to give it up just when it seems to be bearing fruit. To keep the pressures on the Sandinistas, we must maintain the contras as a viable military force.

But even the most perfunctory examination of this first argument reveals its fatuity. The Sandinistas have not ``at long last'' come to the negotiating table. Quite the contrary, they have all along been willing to negotiate. They indicated their willingness to negotiate with us as early as 1981, and by 1983 had brought forward draft treaties that dealt with most of the issues we had said concerned us. We refused to discuss their drafts, telling them instead to discuss them with the Contadora countries. They did that, and in 1984, indicated their readiness to sign the first treaties put forward by the Contadora negotiating process. It was the US that scuttled those treaties, not the Sandinistas. (Remember the leaked National Security Council memo that chortled over the administration's success in blocking them?) The Sandinistas also indicated their readiness to accept a new Contadora draft treaty circulated in 1986. That effort was also torpedoed by the Reagan administration - which insisted that it would continue its contra war no matter what the Contadora countries signed.

Nor is there anything in the present Central American peace plan which the Sandinistas have previously refused to accept. Nothing. The draft Contadora treaties dealt with the issue of democratization. The Sandinistas raised no objections. And they have said all along that they would restore press freedoms and certain other guarantees as soon as the contra war was brought to an end. This is by no means a new position.

What has made the Central American peace plan possible is not some change in the Sandinista position; rather, it is that the other Central American countries have at long last decided to overlook US objections and to sign. Had it been up to the Sandinistas, a negotiated settlement might have been possible back in 1981, before the CIA even organized the contras.

Second, the administration argues, the Central American peace plan fails to deal with the key security issues. Hence, we must keep the contras in place until those issues are addressed - until, for example, all the Soviet and Cuban military personnel have been sent home, and until we are sure there will be no Soviet bases or sophisticated weaponry in Nicaragua.

It is true that the Central American plan does not deal with those issues. We ought to address them ourselves. They are, after all, of more concern to us than to the Central Americans. And the way is certainly open to us. The Sandinistas have said over and over again that they are ready to negotiate with us a verifiable agreement that would prohibit Soviet bases, send all foreign military personnel home, and address our other security concerns. The Reagan administration, however, flatly refuses to sit down to negotiate these key issues - even though it points to Central American failure to do so as a ``fatal flaw in the peace plan.'' Rarely has any government taken so contradictory a position.

How will the administration try to get around the Central American peace plan? The tactic is by now clear. It will demand that the Sandinistas negotiate directly with the senior contra leadership (those in Miami hotel rooms) - something the Central American plan does not call for and something the administration knows the Sandinistas will not do. Meanwhile, it will urge the contras to ignore the cease-fire. (The military commander of the contras has already rejected it.) It will then claim the plan has failed and ask Congress for its $270 million.

The chances that Congress will approve are slim. No matter. The administration will press ahead anyway. The President prefers to leave US security concerns unattended rather than lay down his contra harpoon. The President, moreover, thinks he has the Democratic-controlled Congress in a political box: that it must either give him the aid he wants or be blamed for losing Nicaragua to the communists - in an election year. As a White House source put it, ``It will be the who-lost-China argument and the McCarthy hearings all over again.''

None of this is likely to fool anyone. Certainly it does not solve the problem or otherwise serve the national interests. But then, the President's Central American policy never has.

Before leaving the Foreign Service, Wayne S. Smith was chief of the US interest section in Havana, 1979-82, and was regarded as the State Department's leading expert on Cuba. He is author of ``The Closest of Enemies,'' W.W. Norton & Co.

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