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Central America: How Not to Help the Neighborhood

May 01, 1988|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc, based in Washington, writes on foreign affairs

WASHINGTON — Whether Brig. Gen. Manuel A. Noriega goes peaceably or not, whether he simply goes from bossing Panama or goes out of his country, the United States faces an unprecedented convergence of crises in Central America. Continuing to charge up San Juan Hill--figuratively or otherwise--does not constitute enlightened leadership. In foreign policy, as in all great human enterprises, calm and a willingness to re-examine previous miscalculations is an essential prerequisite for success.

Perhaps that is what is happening with Panama right now. Yet the Reagan Administration stubbornly goes about its earlier ways in other places. Policies have gone awry in Honduras and El Salvador and they inevitably affect the ultimate outcome of the Nicaragua peace process. These policies are the intellectual product of a small contingent led by Elliott Abrams, the pugnacious assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.

In similar government situations, authors of counterproductive policies are politely asked to leave. Yet Abrams, with no real background in Latin American affairs, is the exception who persists. Here, problem area by problem area, policy by policy, is the U.S. record in the region since Abrams assumed his post three years ago:

Working closely with then-National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter, Abrams handled Contra aspects of the famous "Iran-Contra" affair, the operation designed to finance the Nicaragua rebels against the Marxist Sandinista regime, using funds generated by the illegal sale of U.S. arms to Tehran.

Abrams, unlike his partners, is not known to have violated laws in the process nor has he been indicted. What he did do, nevertheless, goes beyond the usual borders of diplomacy. So deeply was Abrams engaged in the rebels' cause that he solicited $10 million from the Sultan of Brunei to buy weapons for the Contras. That farfetching idea illustrates Abrams' basic belief that a military solution, above a diplomatic solution, was imperative. Such a philosophy had earlier forced out Thomas O. Enders, a first-rate career Foreign Service officer, from the job of assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. Enders supported a two-track policy, combining military pressures on Managua with political negotiations, including cooperation with democratic governments of the region under the so-called Contadora process.

But Contadora was then anathema to the Administration and Enders was replaced in 1985. After a brief interlude of policy-making by Langhorne A. Motley, Abrams took over. His arrival was followed by departures; senior officials who had doubts about Contra policy--and implementation--were removed. Among them were Francis J. McNeil, who had served as deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and research, and John A. Ferch, a Latin America specialist who was sacked as ambassador to Honduras--where the United States established a Contra base camp.

Abrams became undisputed master of Latin American turf. Yet in the last year events suggest that Abrams has lost support in the Administration, having already lost allies in the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Nicaragua was one issue. After Costa Rica President Oscar Arias Sanchez launched his peace plan in 1987 to negotiate an end of the stalemated eight-year Nicaragua civil war, Abrams fought it tooth and nail. Even now, with the temporary cease-fire holding surprisingly well, and Contra leaders haggling for political solutions with the Sandinistas, the assistant secretary continues to oppose direct U.S.-Nicaragua talks although logic would seem to require a Washington-Managua dialogue.

Honduras became another issue. The Administration's ineptness in dealing with an exceedingly delicate situation led to violent anti-American riots on two occasions during April. The flash point was the controversial extradition of Honduran narcotics' baron Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, and how he was tricked by the United States, but the underlying problem is a crowd of 15,000 idle Contras. Hondurans resent their country's continued use by American military forces for deployment to threaten the Sandinistas.

Panama has been a major embarrassment. Abrams is credited with having developed the original U.S. plan for deposing Noriega, the Panamanian strongman. More than two months ago, Abrams apparently convinced Eric A. Delvalle, the nominal president, that if he would "fire" the drug-dealing military dictator, the United States would assure the fall of Noriega and support a new Delvalle government. Delvalle went along with the Abrams ploy, unaware that there was no U.S. strategy to sustain it.

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