WASHINGTON — Disheartened and suspicious, conservatives in Congress and the Reagan Administration began Friday to face up to the potential failure of one of their most-cherished foreign policy objectives: the seven-year campaign to foster success for the Contra rebellion against Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
Already, less than two days after the signing of a Nicaraguan cease-fire agreement, which most Contra supporters see as highly advantageous to the Sandinistas, their inability to keep the Contras fighting has begun to spark bitter battles within conservative ranks.
Administration officials were sniping at each other over who should bear the blame for putting the Contras in a position of negotiating from weakness. Some congressional supporters of the Contras were blaming President Reagan, insisting that he could have rallied the country behind his policy had he tried harder. And conservative political strategists were predicting that the demoralization of conservative activists would work against Republicans in November's presidential elections.
Officially, the Administration insisted Friday that the agreement was a step forward for Reagan's policy. A cease-fire "was the No. 1 item on the agenda" when the President proposed a peace plan last August, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
Even Reagan seemed skeptical about the current plan. "Of course we look forward to this and hope it continues," Reagan told reporters during a photo session with visiting President Joaquin Balaguer of the Dominican Republic.
But, he added, "there is reason to have caution--they (the Sandinistas) have a past record that indicates that we should be."
The cease-fire agreement negotiated between Contra leaders and Sandinista representatives this week is the first step in ending a war that has heavily damaged Nicaragua's economy and so far claimed an estimated 25,000 lives. The agreement calls for a 60-day truce, starting April 1, after which the Sandinistas will release 3,360 political prisoners.
Under the agreement, Contra troops then would move into cease-fire zones and Contra leaders would be allowed to travel to Managua to join a "national dialogue" involving the government and opposition parties.
But conservative critics said that the Contras had been forced by lack of U.S. aid to give up their ability to fight in return for very few Sandinista concessions. And they expressed skepticism that the national dialogue in Nicaragua would yield any real results.
"History doesn't give a lot of encouragement to the idea of hard-line Communists abandoning their revolution because President Arias waves a Nobel Prize at them," said Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), referring to Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, last year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his Central American peace plan. "It's disheartening."
"We've moved backwards," said Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), one of the Contras' leading congressional backers. "The Sandinistas are more in control of their country than ever before."
Within the Administration, Contra supporters blamed White House advisers for trying to "get Nicaragua off the screen so they can concentrate on the glory issue of the Moscow summit," as one State Department official put it.
But among congressional Republicans who have led the fight for the Contras, several pinned the responsibility on Reagan, insisting that he could have won the battle for aid if he had been more open about his reasons for the policy.
"The greatest single failure of the Reagan foreign policy was the inability to frame the debate in terms the American people would support," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) Instead, he said, Administration officials kept shifting their rationale for aid to the rebels and allowed the issue to become a pawn of partisan politics.
"The President has done a very poor job on selling" his policy, Rep. Edwards said. "The Great Communicator hasn't communicated on this issue."