US-Contra policy: litany of errors


New York: Simon & Schuster

404 pp. $19.95

LIKE two fighters in the 15th round of a seesaw brawl, both President Reagan and Nicaragua's Sandinistas are close to losing and within one or two punches of winning. The Reagan presidency is almost over, and the contras are almost out of money.

In Nicaragua, the exhausted Sandinistas face riots against an increasingly corrupt regime and try to control their sick and starving audience with slogans and ideology. The struggle seems even more punch-drunk now than in 1985, when President Betancur of Colombia said of Nicaragua and the United States, ``It would seem that every single morning either those on one side or those on another look at a list of what mistakes haven't still been made. And they decide to choose one of them.''

This book is a litany of foreign policy mistakes, but it is not tedious. Roy Gutman, national security correspondent for Long Island's Newsday, guides readers through the Reagan camp with the certainty of Dante's guide to the underworld. Gutman makes strange activities intelligible and reveals the major sins of minor characters. Those who want to charge President Reagan with the creation of the contras will find little solace in Gutman's narrative of what he calls ``one of the most obscure events in Reagan's presidency.''

The President's critics will delight in Gutman's detailed account of how aides to Sen. Jesse Helms, a Honduran general, CIA operatives, Argentine intelligence officers, and a group of dedicated Washington conservatives called the ``pygmies'' quietly made the contras the President's main hope for change in Nicaragua.

Gutman clearly sides with those who believe diplomacy could have averted the bloodshed in Nicaragua and the alienation of many Latin Americans. Yet ``Banana Diplomacy,'' despite its title, never descends to being another lazy polemic or an elegy for the lost innocence of the Sandinistas. Michael Dukakis's campaign workers will naturally want to read it, but should George Bush triumph, his foreign policy team ought to read it.

Beyond deep research and clear thinking, Gutman's success rests heavily on compassion. He writes sharp descriptive prose, but he refrains from cartooning and lampooning even the subjects that bear his heaviest criticism. Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams has ``a quick mind, a combative manner and boundless ambition.'' Oliver North ``came from a religious Roman Catholic background, was hyperactive, indefatigable, and given to working 16-hour days no matter what his job.''

Gutman often lets well-chosen words by a subject's friends and foes paint the portrait. The result is that even the most unlikable people in this book are not cardboard figures but understandable human beings.

Because the author is a journalist whose daily success depends heavily on good interviews, he often lets people in Latin America and Washington tell his story. Gutman has interviewed almost all the major players, from contra leader Enrique Berm'udez to Secretary of State George Shultz. In this kind of story a lot depends on sources that can be identified only as ``high US diplomats,'' ``unnamed former NSC [National Security Council] official,'' ``member of Restricted Interagency Group,'' ``senior US official in Central America,'' and ``confidential CIA source.'' A lot of these deepthroats talk to Gutman, and their use begs the reader's trust. Gutman earns it.

Yet here's a book one can't praise without faint condemnation.

Intent on the chaos of foreign policy strategy under Reagan, Gutman never addresses the near-achievement of the President's goal. While the legality and morality of the contra war are hard to defend and its conduct haphazard, it worked. Even Daniel Ortega blames the war for turning Nicaraguans against the Sandinistas. He has admitted that the war brought him to the bargaining table to talk about subjects the Sandinista directorate had refused to negotiate since they took power in 1979.

Since the Reagan approach has cost thousands of lives, it suggests that the most important question about Nicaragua is why Democrats never offered an alternative, either during the 1984 election or later. There is little here to explain this most important failure, although Gutman's present achievement leaves little doubt he has the contacts and the talent to do the job.

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