What should our policy be in countries threatened by Soviet-sponsored armed insurgencies?
Most analysts favor an economic orientation. That is, we should provide financial aid to help vulnerable governments build the roads, ports and other infrastructure essential to economic growth, which in turn will provide the stability--through jobs, health care, education and so on--that will make revolutionary rhetoric unappealing.
That course makes sense. But what do we do when it's too late for economic nation-building? What if the Soviet stratagem takes hold in the midst of a national upheaval?
This was essentially the situation that the U.S. government faced in 1981 in Nicaragua. Two years after their revolution, the Sandinistas had become the Soviets' puppet, politically and economically. That had to be reversed, and it seemed that Nicaraguans themselves, if given solid support, held a fair chance of doing so. Consequently, we put our chips on the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries--the contras. We committed to train and equip them for battle so as to accomplish the purpose that we shared: coercing change toward pluralism by the Sandinistas.
When the purpose wasn't immediately achieved, confusion set in; political divisions in Congress allowed the release of just enough aid to keep the effort alive but ineffective. And we still haven't confronted the key question: How will the United States compete with the Soviet Union in developing countries where we have important interests? As long as we lack a national consensus on that, we increase the likelihood that the Soviet Union will recognize our paralysis and, by the early 1990s, step up its investment in spawning so-called revolutions in the Philippines, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and elsewhere.
One thing should be clear by now: No policy can hope to succeed unless and until it is explained to and pondered by the American people and they come to support it.
If such a policy debate were to occur, what answers might it produce?
First, it is axiomatic that the American people would prefer to avoid the use of U.S. forces if possible. But what about supporting local freedom fighters? As much as we might like to be the champion of freedom throughout the world, we should make commitments only when the country in question is truly important to our national-security interests, in terms that Americans understand and support. We do no one any favor by signing on to help and getting them all steamed up about establishing democracy, and then running out on them (as we did in Vietnam) when the American people are no longer convinced that our involvement is worth the cost.
A second criterion ought to be that the freedom fighters be truly popular: Their political program must have wide appeal among their countrymen, to engender the local support necessary to sustain the fight.
Another criterion ought to be military competence. Revolutionaries who want their country back don't spend their time sitting in a neighboring country's coffee shops. They get into the field and win battles, they interdict Soviet Bloc supplies and they make it clear to the puppet government that its lifeline is unraveling.
What if we were to apply these criteria to the contras--how would they measure up?
On the first criterion--that the country in question be important to U.S. interests--the answer is positive, if one subscribes to the theory that it is better or cheaper to keep credible (read Soviet) threats as far away from ourselves and our friends as possible. There is little question that, as has happened in Angola and Ethiopia, a substantial and growing Soviet and Cuban presence is entrenched in Nicaragua, and, if unchecked, the "revolution" will ultimately spread to Mexico. And, yes, we should not be ashamed to say that it is important to us to try to spare the millions of people throughout Central America a future of agonizing guerrilla conflict and bloodshed.
As to whether the contras meet the second criterion--having a political program that engenders popular support--a judgment is hard to make. The contras say the right things to us about upholding human rights, having elections and so forth. But it took them four years to bring credible political figures into their leadership, and then only after considerable pressure from us.
To the extent that Nicaraguan institutions reflect sentiment at the grass roots, what we hear from the Catholic Church, the press (such as it is), labor and business groups is that Nicaraguans are highly critical of the Sandinista government--although they are not terribly effusive about the contras, either. A less subjective and apparently valid measure is that peasants are rallying to the contras in modest numbers at the same time that the Sandinista army is experiencing a growing desertion rate.