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Congress and the Contras: The Battle for Capitol Hill

March 09, 1986|William M. LeoGrande | William M. LeoGrande is associate professor of political science at American University and co-editor of "Confronting Revolution: Security Through Diplomacy in Central America," due soon from Pantheon.

WASHINGTON — President Reagan is encountering intense resistance in Congress to his request for $100 million to aid the counterrevolutionary exiles, or contras, fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The mood on Capitol Hill has changed since last year when Congress gave the President a major victory by lifting the 1984 ban on aid to the contras and approving $27 million for non-lethal (sometimes mistakenly referred to as "humanitarian") assistance.

A major factor is Reagan's failure to keep the promises he made last year when he was trying to entice a reluctant Congress to approve the $27-million aid package. In a letter to Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), the President pledged to resume bilateral negotiations with the Sandinistas, clean up the contras' horrific human-rights record and keep Congress fully informed on how the aid money was being spent. Congress gave Reagan his aid, but he has yet to keep his promises.

The CIA looked into allegations of contra human-rights abuses by asking the contras if the reports were true. They said no. When the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, tried to find out how the $27 million in non-lethal aid had been spent, the Administration couldn't or wouldn't tell. And the Administration continues to reject all requests that it resume talks with Nicaragua, insisting on the impossible demand that the Sandinistas first agree to negotiations with the contras.

The Administration's obstinate refusal to do what it promised has alienated many of the moderate Democrats who provided Reagan with his margin of victory last year. McCurdy, who serves as a spokesman for some of these members, has already announced that he will vote against the request for $100 million in additional aid.

Skepticism about the aim of Reagan's policy is also on the rise. Last year, the President argued that aid for the contras was needed as an adjunct to diplomacy--to bring the Sandinistas to the bargaining table. Most members are now convinced that the Reagan Administration has no interest in a diplomatic settlement with the Sandinistas, but is implacably dedicated to overthrowing them.

Administration officials routinely argue that there are only two alternatives to aiding the contras : the direct use of U.S. troops or the surrender of Central America to the Warsaw Pact, as White House Communications Director Patrick J. Buchanan put it. Glaringly absent is the option Reagan claimed to be seeking last year--a negotiated political settlement. White House spokesman Larry Speakes finally punctured that polite fiction two weeks ago when he was asked if the purpose of U.S. policy was to overthrow the Sandinistas. "Yes, to be absolutely frank," he replied.

The candor was refreshing, but it didn't help the Administration's cause on Capitol Hill. If Reagan is intent upon cutting out the Sandinista "cancer," as Secretary of State George P. Shultz calls it, then the contras are clearly inadequate to the task. Despite the renewal of aid from the United States, the contras' military fortunes have never been worse. They are incapable of establishing themselves inside Nicaragua because they have no political appeal, and their command structure is so riddled with former members of Somoza's National Guard that they will never establish any. The last two commanders of the U.S. Southern Command agreed that the contras could not overthrow the Sandinistas, even with significant U.S. assistance.

In Congress, the suspicion is growing that aid to the contras is not intended to avoid direct U.S. involvement, as the Administration claims, but is setting the stage for it. The contras cannot accomplish the Administration's stated purpose of eliminating the Sandinistas. Only U.S. troops can. If the Administration is unwilling to negotiate coexistence with Nicaragua, insisting instead on rolling back the Sandinista revolution, then the logic of its policy is inexorable. Eventually it will have to mount an invasion or accept defeat. This is why House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) warns that Reagan's policy is leading to another Vietnam in Central America.

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