The contra-aid dynamic

AFTER taking a long archipelago of votes on aid to the Nicaragua ``contra,'' or rebel forces, stretching back through the Reagan administration, Congress must do so again, early next month. The votes have always been close. So will be the next one. We have consistently counseled ``no'' on aid - certainly military aid - not as an absolute position, because contra aid really never comes up for a decisive vote, but as a way to participate in what has become an unresolved dynamic on the issue. We say ``no'' again.

The contras are still in business. So are Daniel Ortega and his Marxist Sandinista band. The Reagan administration, whatever it says about further funding of the contras as an ``insurance policy,'' really wants the Ortega government out. Mr. Ortega may well intend to dominate the region, keep his links to the Soviet Union, and establish a socialist haven on the Central American isthmus.

To an administration that sees foreign policy in East-West terms, this cannot be countenanced - even while accommodations are in the works with the Soviets, China, North Vietnam, and East Europe. The domino collapse of Central American democracies to the Rio Grande, against which Alexander Haig early on as secretary of state warned, has failed to occur.

Mr. Reagan could now conceivably claim victory: Ortega has promised to end the state of emergency, enter direct talks with the contras, issue at least partial amnesty to opponents, and hold elections. Reagan could argue that the region's leaders, led by Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias, were able to drive a hard bargain with Ortega last weekend precisely because of the success of the Reagan contra effort, plus the shoring up of American military links along Nicaragua's borders. But it is only consistent for the administration to take the matter to another vote in the House and Senate, daring Ortega to follow through on his promises.

Regretfully, we would not be surprised to see Congress voting on contra aid a year hence when Reagan swears in his successor.

Congress really does not have a contra position to oppose the President's. It has as many positions as it has members.

Congress gets no meaningful direction from the American public on the subject. Americans are staunchly anticommunist. They dislike foreign aid, whether for contras or angels. If asked, Americans say they would fight to stop communism; but they don't think the contra effort can prevail against the Sandinistas, and they don't want to involve the United States in another war. On balance, then, Americans are slightly negative on contra aid, but positive enough about anticommunism to keep the administration's contra string going.

Neither is Congress getting any help from the 1988 political debate. When Democratic operative Robert Strauss made peace between House Speaker Jim Wright and Secretary of State George Shultz over the conduct of Central American policy, Mr. Strauss was effectively taking the issue out of the presidential campaign, where it could have been divisive. It might be interesting, however, to hear Senate minority leader Robert Dole and Vice-President George Bush argue the substance of today's contra policy rather than pursue contra-Iran recollections.

Reagan's contra legacy is uncertain. Front-runners Bush and Dole are pragmatists. If either is elected, or a Democrat, accommodation with Nicaragua becomes more likely.

We think the peace plan pushed this far by five Central American Presidents should be given further opportunity to succeed. To do so would not compromise Washington's superpower responsibilities.

In the contra dynamic, the administration must be pressed to give Ortega's concessions their due, just as Reagan's contra fervor can be counted on to pressure Ortega.

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