Somewhere in the word games that Washington plays over aid to Nicaragua's contras is a real issue: Does Nicaragua threaten this country's vital national security? The answer is no, and Congress should say that this week to President Reagan's new request for $100 million in aid to rebel forces.
Reagan is pulling out all of the stops on the mighty presidential word-Wurlitzer, hoping to turn around the House, which rejected contra aid in a 222-210 vote in March. As evidence of close ties between the Sandinistas and the Soviet Union, the Administration distributes photos of a mysterious Soviet reconnaissance airplane in Nicaragua. (The Sandinistas say that they got the plane from a Soviet rent-a-plane operation to help bring their maps up to date.) The President goes on radio to say that the Sandinistas are really Stalinistas.
Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) and other contra critics counter with evidence that some of the $27 million in aid approved by Congress last year was used to bribe Honduran military officers to cooperate with the contras. Some also wound up in bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, where it may have been linked to drug smuggling.
All of this provides work for speech writers and others around the word-Wurlitzer, but it has nothing to do with the basic issue.
Even if he could make the case that a tiny, war-weary nation of 3 million people is a threat to the United States, Reagan could not demonstrate that his strategy is the right way to deal with the threat. If Nicaragua were as dangerous as Reagan claims, he could have attacked it directly long ago. Because the threat is not that grave, peaceful alternatives are worth trying. Yet Reagan ignores the best alternative, which has been offered by our Latin American allies--the Contadora process.
The only thing that makes Nicaragua a threat, rather than a nuisance, is the Soviet Bloc military aid that the Sandinistas get. Other Latin Americans know this, which is why they want to demilitarize the situation in Central America. Repeatedly they have urged the United States to stop attacking Nicaragua and give them a chance to deal with the Sandinistas through economic pressure and moral suasion rather than threats.
But Reagan wants the Sandinistas to "say uncle," believing that peace just gives them time to consolidate their revolution. He uses the contras to keep Managua off balance, even though they can't win because they have too little popular support in Nicaragua. This sterile strategy leads nowhere.
Under a Contadora treaty, the area's governments would agree to not intervene in each other's affairs, buy fewer arms and reduce the size of their armies. But the Sandinistas refuse to bargain with their neighbors until the United States stops aiding the contras, and Reagan won't agree to that.
The stalemate plays into the hands of Administration hard-liners because it keeps alive the pipe dream that the contras will take over Managua someday. Clearer thinkers must pursue the more rational alternative offered by Contadora. In order for Contadora to work, Congress must keep the President away from Nicaragua, which is why contra aid must be defeated once and for all.