WASHINGTON — President Reagan, in a surprise move designed to build credibility for his plan to aid Nicaraguan rebels, announced Friday that veteran negotiator Philip C. Habib will become a special U.S. envoy to Central America.
The President praised Habib, who has been acting as a special ambassador to the Philippines since last month's presidential election there, for playing "a key role . . . at a critical turning point" and said that he wanted the respected trouble-shooter to transfer his skills to another part of the world to help bring about "a diplomatic solution" in Nicaragua.
Bleary-eyed after an overnight flight from the Philippines, Habib said he would meet next week with President Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador to explore the possibility of a new round of talks in the region. Duarte has said he would resume talks with guerrillas fighting his government if Nicaragua would begin simultaneous talks with the rebels fighting against the Sandinistas.
"I have no illusions about the complexity of the issues and the difficulties of reaching a negotiated solution," Habib said.
Habib's appointment was prompted by Administration awareness that Reagan's $100-million aid package for the rebels fighting the Marxist government in Nicaragua is in trouble on Capitol Hill. As Reagan's rhetoric escalated on the need for U.S. military assistance to counter a possible "Communist beachhead" in Central America, congressional leaders doubted the Administration's commitment to pursuing a negotiated outcome.
White House officials hope that sending a skilled negotiator like Habib into the conflict will provide instant credibility for Reagan's assertions that he is not relying solely on military muscle to force a change in government in Nicaragua. They hope that assurance will win votes for aid to the contras, as the rebel fighters are called.
"It's an effort to get across the fact that we do have a policy for peace in Central America," a White House official said, adding that the 66-year-old Habib has proven himself "in a lot of dicey situations."
Congressional reaction was swift and positive. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised Reagan's appointment of Habib as "a strong and decisive action."
New Negotiating Track
Lugar had urged Secretary of State George P. Shultz to open a new negotiating track with Nicaragua, in addition to seeking funding for the rebels. "We need to combine diplomatic pressure along with internal pressure on the Sandinistas to change their ways," Lugar said.
Administration officials also hoped that Habib's success as Reagan's representative in the Philippines would transfer to Nicaragua and reinforce a parallel that the Administration sees between the two countries in the fight for democracy.
"Everybody now is enamored with what might be called a Philippines solution to each problem," Lugar said at a breakfast meeting at The Times' Washington Bureau. But he added that Reagan needs to win funding for the contras to make successful negotiations possible.
"The President has to have some stock in trade with which to deal," he said. "The Contadora (negotiating) process works about as long as it's perceived that there is some military interest on the part of the United States."
Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama, calling themselves the Contadora Group, have been trying since early 1983 to achieve a settlement of Central American conflicts through diplomatic mediation.
Reagan, appearing with Habib in the White House briefing room, reiterated his plea for a combination of humanitarian and military aid, calling it "the tools" that Habib would need to bring "an increasing level of pressure" on the Sandinista government, which is headed by Daniel Ortega.
The House vote on Reagan's aid package is scheduled for March 18. The White House announced Friday that Reagan will deliver a nationally televised address on Sunday evening, March 16, in an effort to build support on the eve of the critical up-or-down vote.
Administration officials were exploring ways to make the package more palatable without altering its basic concept. One possibility being discussed was a 60-day hold on military aid to give negotiations time to get under way. If the talks failed or were stalled, the military assistance would then be delivered.
A Matter of Time
Reagan has said he would not accept a six-month hold on military aid, calling it "too long a time with what we're facing out there." But a shorter period before the aid is triggered could well prove the basis for an eventual compromise with Congress.
A State Department official said that Habib's mission to Central America had been in the works for several weeks. Habib replaces Harry W. Shlaudeman, another career diplomat who led the U.S. delegation in a series of bilateral talks with Nicaragua from June, 1984, until January, 1985.