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Too Much Firepower

November 03, 1986

The Reagan Administration, not content with with sending $100 million to the contra rebels in Nicaragua, has now further destabilized the tense situation in Central America by offering Honduras advanced jet fighter planes.

The decision to give the Hondurans their choice of either new U.S. F-5Es or Israeli Kfir fighters is bad enough in itself. Honduras can barely afford to feed its own people, much less spend more than $100 million each on modern warplanes it doesn't need. But the Honduran military, which is not noted for either honesty or thoughtfulness, will probably leap at the offer and pressure the country's weak civilian leaders to accept it. The United States can then use the aircraft deal as leverage to prod the Hondurans to continue aiding the contras covertly, something that they have been increasingly reluctant to do.

Worse, the arrival of advanced fighters in a neighboring country will tempt the Sandinista government in Managua to add jet fighters to their already formidable arsenal. The only constructive element in Reagan's bellicose attitude toward Nicaragua had been his insistence that it have no advanced jet aircraft. The policy, announced when the Administration feared that Nicaragua might obtain MIG-21 fighters from the Soviet Bloc, by implication applied to all other countries in the region. Since Reagan has taken the first step to completely turn that policy around, the United States will be in a poor position to complain when the Sandinistas decide to up the military ante too.

Administration spokesman insist that giving Honduras F-5Es or Kfirs is not an escalation of the arms race in Central America, since the Honduran air force already has jets. But those planes are old French Mysteres purchased second-hand from Israel in 1977--and even that aging fleet gives Honduras the most powerful air force in Central America. The arrival of modern fighters in Honduras will not only prod Nicaragua to arm itself more, but also tempt Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras' traditional military rivals, to do the same.

The jet decision is one more example of how poorly thought-out Administration strategy in Central America is. Reagan is so obsessed with looking decisive and tough on Nicaragua in the short term that he and his aides overlook the long-term consequences of U.S. actions. Reagan may be able to leave office in two years saying he stood up to tiny Nicaragua, but he will leave an unstable and bloody Central America his successors will have to worry about for years to come.

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