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Contras Seen as Ineffectual Force : Compromise Is Likely on U.S. Aid for Rebels

March 09, 1986|SARA FRITZ and DOYLE McMANUS | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Reagan's latest military aid proposal for the Nicaraguan rebels appears headed for defeat in the Democratic-controlled House and perhaps in the Republican Senate as well, but it is far from dead.

Even Reagan's staunchest opponents concede that these votes will be nothing more than momentary setbacks for the President on the road to ultimate victory. Already, moderate Democrats and Republicans are meeting privately to fashion a broad bipartisan compromise--what Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) describes as "a Philippine solution"--that would provide the insurgents with military aid for the first time in two years.

"It seems to me that there's probably a pretty good majority of people in the Congress who are prepared to spend the money," said Lugar, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Overtures Spurned

So far, Reagan has assiduously spurned these overtures of compromise with Congress and, instead, chosen to wage a highly confrontational battle that appears doomed to fail, a strategy described by one GOP source as "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory."

For now, the Administration stoutly refuses to accept any changes in the President's proposal for $30 million in non-lethal aid for the Nicaraguan rebels combined with another $70 million that could be spent covertly through the CIA for weapons or whatever else is needed to revive the foundering insurgency.

But there is little doubt in Congress that when money is finally approved, the legislation will include a number of conditions the President opposes, perhaps including requirements for U.S. negotiations with the Marxist regime in Nicaragua and improved efforts by the rebels to win the allegiance of the people of that country.

"After the politics is finished, there will be a policy that emerges," said Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), one of several lawmakers trying to fashion a compromise. "I think the Administration will be dragged kicking and screaming to a different position."

Visiting Senators

Unlike last year, when two Senate Democrats went to Managua for a friendly chat with President Daniel Ortega, few members of Congress now disagree with Reagan's judgment that the United States should act to keep the Sandinistas from consolidating power in Nicaragua. Nor do many members disagree with the idea of supporting the Nicaraguan rebels, known as contras.

At the same time, members of Congress are fearful of approving anything that might put the United States on what is frequently described as the "slippery slope" toward direct involvement of U.S. troops in Central America.

"Few of us here believe we should retire to the sidelines and do nothing," said Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.). "But equally few are eager for direct intervention in Nicaragua. This has led the Congress into an uncomfortable middle ground of trying to provide moral and material support for resistance forces, but stopping short of direct U.S. involvement."

Reaction to Mining

In 1984, Congress cut off aid to the contras in reaction to the CIA's covert mining of a harbor where Soviet arms shipments were apparently being delivered to Nicaragua. A year later, however, Congress weakened its ban on contra aid by providing $27 million of strictly "humanitarian" aid to buy equipment and medical supplies and insisting that none of it be funneled through the CIA or used for "lethal" purposes.

This year, the primary goal of the President's proposal is to lift all restrictions on CIA involvement and provide funds for weapons to be used against the Sandinistas. No matter how much money Congress ultimately provides for arms, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams said, the Administration will insist that it be in the form of covert military aid not open to public accounting.

Without military aid, U.S. officials insist, the contras cannot be expected to reverse the Sandinistas' military ascendancy. They say that the contras cannot compete with the Soviet-supplied Sandinistas without receiving U.S. anti-aircraft weapons, trucks and helicopters as well as basic infantry weapons for 14,000 unequipped recruits. The Administration estimates total contra forces at 22,000.

"If this program is to go anywhere," one official said, "somebody has to find a way to convert the contras into a real army."

Questions on Hill

Although Congress is expected to trim Reagan's $100-million request for budgetary reasons, the amount of money is not a major topic of debate. Nor do a substantial majority of the lawmakers still strongly contest a covert role for the CIA in the region.

The questions now being asked on Capitol Hill include: Can the contras win? What would happen in Nicaragua if the contras defeated the Sandinistas? What kind of long-term aid commitment must the United States make to achieve its goals? What is the alternative to supporting the contras?

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