President Reagan should take no comfort from the Senate's decision last week to send the contra rebels in Nicaragua a final allotment of U.S. aid, about $40 million. For key senators warned that, unless the Administration makes a more serious effort to settle Central America's crisis through negotiations, the contras may get no more support.
Only a narrow 52-48 vote defeated a resolution that would have halted the final payment of the $100 million in aid that Reagan persuaded a skeptical Congress to give the contras this year. At least four senators who voted for the contras--David L. Boren (D-Okla.), William S. Cohen (R-Me.), Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska)--said that they will vote against more aid for the Nicaraguan rebels unless the Administration puts as much energy into diplomacy in Central America as it puts into making war.
Those four senators, and several others who say that they are increasingly troubled by Reagan's obsession with the Sandinista government in Managua, should prepare themselves to switch. For there are no signs that the President is prepared to change his mind about Nicaragua. Even as the Senate was voting last week, published reports in Central America and Washington indicated that Administration officials are deeply divided over whether to support or oppose the latest peace effort for Central America--an initiative begun by Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias.
While professional diplomats like Ambassador Philip C. Habib, Reagan's special envoy to Central America, want to pursue the Arias plan and believe that they can negotiate it into a form that would be acceptable to both the Sandinistas and the United States, right-wing political appointees like Elliott Abrams, the undersecretary of state for Latin America, want to quash any plan that would require an end to U.S. military pressure on Nicaragua, as Arias' proposal would. This same divided approach helped Abrams and other right-wingers in the U.S. government undermine the peacemaking effort of the Contadora Group (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama), which for almost four years has tried to negotiate peace treaties in Central America.
Standing in stark contrast to Reagan's stubbornness were statements last week by Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, who told the New York Times in an interview that he is prepared to negotiate a Central American agreement that "would respond to the major security concerns of the United States." But, like other close observers of the Central American crisis, Oretga has concluded that nothing will happen until the United States lets it happen: "As long as the United States is not willing to negotiate, the Arias proposal, the Contadora proposal . . . will remain only proposals."
Because Reagan is either unwilling to change his mind on Nicaragua or incapable of doing so, the responsibility for setting a new course for the United States in Central America rests with Congress. The stage has been set for peace talks in Central America for some time, if only because the nations and the people involved are exhausted after years of fruitless fighting. But, as the Arias peace plan itself says, the negotiating process cannot begin until outside support for insurgents in the region ends--and that includes Reagan's support for the contras. So the next time Reagan asks the Senate to help his Nicaraguan "freedom fighters," the answer must be a firm "No!"