Next Step: Negotiations With the Sandinistas

SECRETARY of State James Baker III has achieved for the two-month-old Bush administration an objective that eluded the Reagan White House for eight years: a bipartisan agreement between the executive branch and congressional leaders on a United States approach toward Nicaragua. With that agreement in hand, the administration now has the opportunity to shape a sensible and sustainable national policy in Central America - one that reflects the realities in the region as well as in Washington. The basic goals of US policy remain unchanged. Nicaragua cannot be allowed to become a platform for the projection of Soviet and Cuban military power in the hemisphere; it cannot endanger the security of its neighbors; and it should open its political system and respect the rights of its citizens. But the administration and Congress have now agreed to pursue these ends through different means.

Their accord rejects the fundamental premise of the Reagan years - that the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, by its mere existence, threatens vital US interests, thereby justifying the use of military force against it. Instead of supporting the military campaign of the Nicaraguan resistance (or contras) against the Sandinista government, the administration now proposes to use a variety of diplomatic and economic ``carrots and sticks'' to influence that government's behavior.

In forging its agreement with Congress, the Bush administration has faced up to the crucial fact that the contra strategy has failed and that the Sandinistas are firmly entrenched. The administration has also acknowledged that US policy is likely to be more effective if Washington works together with its friends and allies rather than trying to go it alone. In that spirit, the bipartisan agreement strongly endorses the Esquipulas peace accords signed by five Central American Presidents in August 1987, and calls for cooperation with the democratic nations of Europe and Latin America. For their part, congressional opponents of the contra war have agreed to provide another year of nonlethal aid, keeping the contras intact in Honduras while Washington presses for democratic reforms in Nicaragua.

Now that it has gained bipartisan backing, the Bush administration has the authority to pursue an effective diplomatic strategy in Central America. Secretary Baker has said that what we are after is a negotiated settlement with Nicaragua. The best way to achieve that is to start negotiating. In close consultation with the other Central American countries, the US should resume bilateral talks with Nicaragua. These talks should be directed toward two fundamental goals.

First, the US should seek to curtail Nicaragua's military ties to the Soviet Union. It is precisely these ties that create a potential danger for US security. Without them, as Henry Kissinger has observed, ``Nicaragua would, at worst, be a nuisance not a threat.''

Second, the US should work out the conditions under which the contras could return to Nicaragua. Keeping the contras together as a potential fighting force in Honduras may maintain some pressure on the Sandinistas for political reform, but it is no longer very threatening to them. Nicaragua's leaders follow Washington politics closely; they know that there is little prospect that the US will renew its military aid and send the contras back into battle. The contras could exert a far greater influence on Nicaragua's future by rejoining the political contest and bolstering the country's weak internal opposition.

It makes little sense to wait until after the February 1990 elections to reintegrate the contras. They should instead be encouraged to return in time to participate in the campaign and vote - provided, of course, that the Sandinistas offer suitable guarantees of personal safety and assurances that they will, in fact, be allowed to compete politically. Moreover, once the bulk of the contras were repatriated or relocated, the Sandinistas would have no further justification to maintain an oversize Army or to delay cutting their Soviet-bloc military ties.

Successful negotiations might help as well to resolve another problem. A political settlement would enable the Nicaraguans to begin the task of rebuilding their economy. It would allow the Sandinistas to shift resources from military spending to more productive uses; it would also open the way for significant international assistance and for the lifting of the damaging US trade embargo. The longer Nicaragua's economy is left to deteriorate, the less attractive it will be for the contras and their families to return home - and, indeed, the current mass exodus from the country is likely to persist.

The bipartisan agreement, in short, is not a solution to the US's Nicaragua problem. It does not resolve the serious security concerns posed by Nicaragua; it does not address the fundamental question of the future of the contras; nor does it provide criteria or procedures for judging democratic progress in Nicaragua. What it does do is establish the basis for developing a new and sustainable policy that can deal with these issues.

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