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The Contra Package

March 26, 1989

The Bush Administration has reached agreement with Congress on what it advertises as bipartisan policy towards Nicaragua. Unfortunately, the "new" approach includes a very troublesome part of the old policy--continued aid to the Contras.

Under the agreement hammered out largely between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), the new Administration has agreed to give up the Reagan Administration's naive notion that the Sandinistas can be overthrown. Instead, the new policy revolves around the idea of confining the Nicaraguan revolution to that country and using diplomatic and economic pressure to get the Sandinistas to be more democratic.

This level-headed approach to Nicaragua has long been the policy option favored by career professionals in the State Department. But former President Reagan preferred to follow the course set by right-wing activists in his Administration who were determined to oust the Sandinistas even if they had to break the law to do it. Baker had a difficult time winning support for President Bush's new approach because too many congressmen vividly remember the last eight years.

With the important exception of the Contras, it appears that things have changed. Baker told dubious members of Congress, for example, that the Administration will now support the peace process recently begun by the five Central American presidents. That is in refreshing contrast to Reagan's stance of trying to delay, or even sabotage, peacemaking efforts in the region. But the Administration's request for 10 more months of "humanitarian" aid to the Contras will not help the peace process launched by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.

A key agreement in the Arias peace plan requires that the 11,000-person Contra army, now waiting in Honduras for more U.S. aid, be demobilized before elections are held next February in Nicaragua. Bush and Baker want to continue sending more than $4 million a month to the Nicaraguan rebels until February, demobilizing them only after the elections. They argue that the Contras are needed as a potential "stick" to keep Managua in line.

The trouble with this second-hand logic is that nobody outside of Washington takes the Contras seriously anymore--at least not as a fighting force.

The Hondurans worry about them only as a crime problem. The Sandinistas are convinced that Reagan's surrogate army is defeated and are unlikely to be cowed by threats the Contras will be unleashed again. Arias and other peacemakers warn that continued funding of the Contras gives the Sandinistas an excuse to resist pressure to open up the Nicaraguan political system.

That worrisome possibility seems more likely now, given the hostile reaction in Managua to Bush's announcement Friday of his request for more Contra funding. "Humanitarian aid to a standing military force is a contradiction in terms," a Sandinsita spokesman said. "Either you approve the dismantling of the Contras or you don't."

The new Bush-Baker strategy towards Nicaragua is sensible in many ways. But it would have a far better chance of success if the Administration gave up the one remaining fantasy of Reagan's that still hampers Washington--that the Contras can be a "viable" force in dealing with the Sandinistas. That policy has failed dismally and the Administration would be better off helping the Contras withdraw from the battlefield.

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