This week's wrestlings over aid for the Nicaraguan contras are viewed by the Reagan administration as a challenge to its broad strategic policy of rolling back Soviet expansionism in the world. As White House officials see it, United States support for anticommunist ``freedom fighters'' - the so-called Reagan Doctrine - has resulted in tangible gains:
The Soviet Union is seriously negotiating for a withdrawal of its occupation forces in Afghanistan.
In Central America a peace process, however tenuous, is under way and Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra has been forced to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, other countries in the region, it is argued, have had breathing time to move away from authoritarianism.
In Anglola US support for the forces of Jonas Savimbi, leader of UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), is increasing pressure on the Marxist government to oust the Cuban troops there. The State Department says the Angola regime has now agreed in principal to remove all (not just most) Cuban troops in the context of a peace settlement. It also notes that in recent talks in Luanda, Angola, Cuban officials participated for the first time.
In Cambodia the Soviets are urging the Vietnamese to come to an accommodation with the anticommunist resistance forces. Prospects for a settlement appear to be improving.
``The policy of supporting resistance movements in Afghanistan and elsewhere has been a very important and remarkably successful component or our policy,'' a senior administration official says. ``It says to the Soviets, `We will take you on wherever you're aggressive,' and the counterpressure has led to their pullback - or talking about it.''
Soviets' attention diverted
Diplomatic observers have varying opinions about the extent to which the Reagan administration can take credit for Soviet retrenchment globally.
Administration critics say it is not the Reagan Doctrine that is forcing changes in Soviet policy around the world but rather the decisions of a new Soviet leadership in the Kremlin to scale back Soviet commitments abroad because of domestic economic pressures. US policy, the observers say, is simply taking advantage of Soviet weakness.
``The new cases of Soviet expansionism around the world are few and far between,'' says Mark Garrison, director of Brown University's Center for Foreign Policy Development.
``The cruciality of the Reagan Doctrine is ... waning because the problem it is intended to address is waning. It did bring the problem to the attention of the Soviet leaders, but they would still be focusing on internal problems, recognizing that Soviet rambunctiousness makes it difficult to start scaling back the use of military power for political purposes,'' Mr. Garrison says.
The administration itself does not use the term ``Reagan Doctrine.'' It was coined by a conservative columnist in 1985 as a counterpoint to the Brezhnev Doctrine (Moscow's asserted right to intervene in a Soviet-bloc country to preserve socialism).
The term was quickly embraced by other conservatives, including the former US ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, to describe the policy of supporting ``freedom fighters'' in communist-dominated countries.
But President Reagan's antipathy for communism and determination to fight it have been a focus of US policy from the outset of his administration. In his State of the Union address in 1985 he declared:
``We must stand by all our democratic allies. And we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives - on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua - to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.''
Doctrine disappoints conservatives
Ironically, conservatives are disappointed with the results of the Reagan Doctrine, charging that it is not being supported by the entire administration and calling for establishment of a ``Resistance Support Agency'' to promote it. The only country that has been returned to freedom is Grenada, complains the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington.
``Even while showing support for resistance movements with stirring rhetoric and photo opportunities for resistance leaders, the President has undermined the doctrine by allowing the State Department to pursue the `diplomatic solution' that is popular in foreign ministries everywhere, and by trying to cut deals with communist leaders ranging from Moscow's Gorbachev to Mozambique's Joaquim Chissano,'' a recent Heritage Foundation report states.
Many administration officials do in fact quietly play down the importance of the Reagan Doctrine.
``We are less deus ex machina than we like to think of ourselves,'' one senior US official says. ``It's a matter of local events coming together. Each area moves in its own context.''
In Afghanistan, the official says, the US has made a contribution in its handling of the Soviets, but it has not played a major role in Angola, South America, or Asia. ``These countries follow their own interest,'' he says. ``Every now and then enunciation of a `doctrine' sets a banner, but I doubt the Reagan Doctrine plays a role.''
But the President is playing the Soviet relationship well, the official adds. ``He's hitched his wagon to the right star.''
Impact of doctrine questioned
While independent experts credit US policy with having an impact in such areas as Afghanistan and Nicaragua, they believe the impact is exaggerated. In Nicaragua, for instance, the Sandinista government is seen to be acting primarily under the pressure of deteriorating economic prospects.
``The Soviets have made clear to the Nicaraguans that they will not acquire the protection and subsidies of another Cuba,'' comments John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. ``Even the Cubans have told them that. So the Nicaraguans' maneuvering room is very constrained.''
The US, Dr. Steinbruner says, is misunderstanding the extent of its leverage.
Policy affected Soviet involvement
David Newsom, director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, suggests that the Reagan policy of intervention in Nicaragua may have actually resulted in more rather than less Soviet and Cuban involvement. The Nicaraguans, he says, have reason to think the US is out to overthrow them and are therefore pressuring Moscow for aid.
``The idea that [the Nicaraguan buildup] is part of a grand Soviet design which we are blocking has flaws,'' Mr. Newsom says.
``The pressure for Soviet aid is to large extent more from the Sandinistas than from Moscow to give it,'' he goes on. ``So our support for the contras has led to more Soviet aid than there would be otherwise.''
In Southeast Asia, it is the Democratically controlled Congress rather than the Reagan administration that has pressed for more assistance for the Cambodian rebels.
``In seven years of the administration there has been more rhetoric than action because of caution about getting involved,'' says a well-informed Asian diplomat. ``But the level of rhetoric has increased, and that has improved the rebels' morale.''
Now positions in the area are changing and ``the ice is breaking,'' the diplomat says. ``The next 12 months will be a very interesting period.'' He adds that ``there's a possibility of real movement.''
The administration's objective in Angola is to force the withdrawal of Cuban troops. Some diplomatic observers criticize the policy, because it aligns the US with South Africa, which supports and supplies UNITA.
Others, while recognizing this embarrassing link, nonetheless argue that the buildup of pressure on the Angolan government is needed to produce a negotiated settlement that removes the Cuban forces.
In Afghanistan, the policy of helping the resistance was put in place under the Carter administration. But the Reagan administration greatly increased the amount and quality of aid, especially in providing Stinger missiles, which have proved so effective against Soviet aircraft.
Congressional record on contra aid December 1981: $19 million covert military aid approved, to be managed by the CIA. December 1982: $19 million in covert military aid approved. According to the Boland Amendment, aid to be used as long as the administration's stated purpose was not to overthrow the government or to provoke a Nicaraguan-Honduran war. November 1983: $24 million military aid approved publicly. Halted money for rebels from CIA contingency fund. March 1984: Congress rejects request for $21 million because of the CIA involvement in the mining of several Nicaraguan harbors. October 1984: Congress adopts a compromise that freezes aid until February 1985 and then will allow it only if both houses of Congress approve. August 1985: $27 million in nonmilitary aid approved. February 1986: Reagan asks Congress for $100 million for contras, split $30 million in humanitarian assistance and $70 million in military aid. October 1986: $70 million in military aid and $30 million in nonmilitary aid approved. The first $60 million was used to buy small arms; the remaining $40 million, held until February 1987, was used for heavy weaponry. The last of that aid technically expired Sept. 30, 1987, but money and materiel still in the ``pipeline'' have continued to flow to the rebels into 1988. November 1986: Meese announced that $10 million to $30 million had been secretly diverted to the rebel forces since January 1986. February 1987: Congress rejects freeze on aid. Second installation of $100 million approved in October 1986 begins to flow. August 1987: Central American peace plan signed. September 1987: Shultz says Reagan will ask for $270 million for contra aid for fiscal 1988. September 1987: $3.5 million in humanitarian aid passed in a stopgap bill. Aid will last through Nov. 10. Funds already allocated for military uses will continue to flow until exhausted. November 1987: $3.2 million in humanitarian aid approved. Funding will last until Dec 6. November 1987: Central American Peace accord takes effect. December 1987: $14 million in humanitarian aid and transportation funding approved. The money as well as the CIA's authority to transport supplies expire Feb. 29. Total military and nonmilitary aid since 1981 - more than $200 million.