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We Can't Buy Peace for Nicaragua : No Argument for Giving Contras $100 Million Is Supportable

February 19, 1986|PETER D. BELL | Peter D. Bell is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Ineluctably, and tragically, the Reagan Administration is pushing Congress down the slippery slope leading to more direct U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua. Only a year ago, Congress was reluctant to lift its ban on financial support for the anti-Sandinista rebels. Eventually, it approved $27 million in "humanitarian" aid, which the Reagan Administration broadened to include any "nonlethal" aid. Now, the Administration is brazenly seeking $100 million, including outright military aid, for the contras.

The Administration has four arguments on behalf of additional aid, none of which really makes the case:

--By keeping the Sandinistas occupied, the contras help to distract them from adventurism in El Salvador. President Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador made this point when I met with him on a recent trip to Central America, but he did so without much conviction. When I pressed Duarte as to whether he favored U.S. support for the contras, he demurred, saying that this was an issue between the United States and Nicaragua. The argument today that the contras keep the Sandinistas from mischief-making in neighboring countries carries no more weight than the old argument that the contras interdicted Sandinista arms destined for the Salvadoran rebels. Everyone knows that the contras have other reasons for being.

--The contras keep pressure on the Sandinistas for internal political changes. This argument presumes that the Reagan Administration would be satisfied with something less than the Sandinistas' ouster. As long as the Sandinistas believe otherwise--and the Administration keeps giving them every reason to do so--they have no incentive to consider internal political accommodations. In fact, the contras' association with the Somocista National Guard and U.S. interventionism has helped to consolidate and stiffen the Sandinista regime.

--The contras will overthrow the Sandinistas. Outside of Washington, hardly anyone believes that the contras, as currently constituted, can win. The Sandinistas have used the contra threat to justify both the massive build-up of their armed forces and the resumption of emergency powers. Despite unhappiness with the way the revolution has gone, most Nicaraguans have closed ranks against outside intervention. If most of the contras had not repaired to Honduran sanctuary, they would have been defeated by now.

The Reagan Administration apparently believes that the contras' credibility as a fighting force depends not only on additional U.S. financial and material aid, but also on U.S. involvement in training the insurgents and in planning and directing the war. What the Administration will not say is how much U.S. involvement would be enough, or what the United States would do if the contras still were unable to do the job.

--Support for the contras signifies U.S. resolve to stop Soviet expansionism in Central America. Much of Central America is embittered at the Leninist turn of the Nicaraguan revolution, anxious about Sandinista ties to the Soviet Union and Cuba, and concerned over alleged Sandinista support for other revolutionary movements. Yet even the most virulent opponents of the Sandinistas are not much impressed by U.S. support for the contras as such. Still, it does nurture their belief that the United States is so determined to rout the Marxists that it ultimately will move directly against Nicaragua. This belief and pledges of more aid to the contras have reinforced passivity within the internal Nicaraguan opposition, who are content to wait for "Uncle Sam."

Sustaining the contras is widely viewed in Central America as a no-win proposition for the region. It only prolongs a low-intensity war, contributes to a regional arms race, draws Central America deeper into the East-West struggle, and hampers regional trade, private investment and tourism. Such a war could always flare into a regional conflagration, with deepening superpower involvement.

Upon starting his new job as national security adviser, Adm. John M. Poindexter traveled to Central America to assure the region that President Reagan will fight for more assistance to the contras. The countries of the region, and of Latin America in general, hardly seek such assurance. Overwhelmingly, what would reassure them is evidence of progress toward a regional peace, starting with cessation of aid to the contras-- if such a move were part of a larger set of accommodations on security issues between the Reagan Administration and the Sandinistas.

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