WASHINGTON — The debate in Congress over the contras took on an often apocalyptic quality. The President touched on one of the public's most deep-seated fears when he argued that the ultimate effect of losing Nicaragua would be "desperate Latin peoples by the millions . . . fleeing north."
The President's critics were equally intemperate. "We are, by our actions, by our statements, by our movements, making more communists in Central America and Latin America than is possible for (Daniel) Ortega to make," said one.
What explains the intensity of the debate? After all, Nicaragua is not an issue of great public concern. It is, however, a defining ideological issue to politicians on the left and right. Military intervention is now one of the principal issues separating Democratic and Republican activists.
The New Right, which now controls the Republican Party, emerged in 1964 in a storm of outrage over the willingness of the nation's political Establishment to accept peaceful coexistence with the communists. Cuba was a particular indignity. And the Cuban image is at the heart of the Administration's Nicaragua policy. What animates the right in Nicaragua is an issue of the deepest emotional conviction: "No more Cubas."
The New Politics left, now a dominant voice in the Democratic Party, also traces its roots to a foreign-policy conflict--the anti-Vietnam War movement. The New Politics sprang to life with Sen. Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign. It seized control of the party in 1972 and converted it to the principle of noninterventionism. Repeatedly during the Nicaragua debate last week, Democrats brought up Vietnam. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) called the vote on aid to the contras "a Tonkin Gulf vote" that would lead to U.S. military involvement. What animates the left is also an issue of the deepest emotional conviction: "No more Vietnams."
Thus, to political leaders, Nicaragua is a great symbolic confrontation. To the public, it is simply a nuisance.
The Nicaragua debate did occasion an important policy development, however. When the Reagan Administration came to power in 1981, the President endorsed the foreign-policy views expressed by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, a then-obscure political science professor, in a 1979 article.
Using the examples of President Jimmy Carter's failed policies in Iran and Nicaragua, Kirkpatrick argued against "the pervasive and mistaken assumption that one can easily locate and impose democratic alternatives to incumbent autocracies." In the case of friendly authoritarian regimes, she argued, U.S. policy should be to encourage liberalization and democracy, not threaten revolution. In the case of radical Marxist regimes, encouragement will do no good; they will only respond to threats.
The Democratic line has generally been to reverse these tactics. The party's 1984 platform, for instance, threatens maximum pressure against human rights violators like the apartheid regime in South Africa. While recognizing "the undoubted communist influence" on left-wing insurrections in Latin America, the platform stresses "the indigenous causes of unrest" and calls for "social, economic and political reforms." The Democrats' policy toward Cuba and Nicaragua, however, is not to threaten them militarily but to encourage change and reward them with good relations.
The Democratic view is that sanctions against right-wing dictatorships, often dependent on U.S. support, can bring about effective change; whereas the United States has much less leverage against communist regimes. Kirkpatrick, later Reagan's chief U.S. delegate to the United Nations, argued that it is dishonest and usually counterproductive to threaten friends while offering to "stabilize relations" with totalitarian countries of the left.
Then suddenly came the revolutions in Haiti and the Philippines. The Reagan Administration discovered, more or less by accident, that sometimes it was in our best interest to take a tough line with right-wing dictators and even help depose them.
The Reagan Administration took advantage of the situation. On March 14, the President sent a message to Congress announcing a new set of principles for his foreign policy. He proclaimed the Administration's commitment to "democratic revolution" around the world.
The document included this Carteresque assertion: "The American people believe in human rights and oppose tyranny in whatever form, whether of the left or of the right." It called attention to the Administration's success in Haiti and the Philippines and to its efforts to encourage peaceful change in South Africa. At the same time, the Administration expressed public concern over the human rights situation in Chile and South Korea. In an unauthorized burst of enthusiasm, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs even accepted the label of "freedom fighters" for the outlawed, and strongly left-wing, African National Congress in South Africa.