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Obama administration seems soft on Nicaraguan aggression

Saturday, December 25, 2010; 6:10 PM

AQUARTER-CENTURY ago the United States went to extraordinary lengths to prevent consolidation of a leftist dictatorship in Nicaragua, funding an opposition army and even mining the country's harbors. Now the Central American state is veering back toward dictatorship under the same leader, Daniel Ortega, and it recently sent troops to seize disputed territory from neighboring Costa Rica. The reaction from Washington? An invitation to apply for foreign aid.

Mr. Ortega lost power in a 1990 election and went on to lose three more; he has never won the support of even 40 percent of Nicaraguans. But corrupt manipulation of the country's Congress and courts allowed him to return to the presidency following a 2006 election, and since then he has been systematically dismantling democratic checks and balances. An illegitimate Supreme Court composed entirely of his appointees has ruled that he is eligible to run for reelection as president next year even though the constitution expressly forbids it.

The would-be president for life has now hit upon a way to rally public support: invading other countries. In October Mr. Ortega launched an operation to divert the course of the San Juan River, which runs between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and deployed troops to occupy an island on Costa Rican territory. The Organization of American States has twice voted by a lopsided margin for resolutions calling on Nicaragua to withdraw; Mr. Ortega has refused. Costa Rica, which abolished its army half a century ago, has little recourse other than an appeal to the International Court of Justice.

It's tempting to imagine how the Reagan administration might have reacted had Mr. Ortega pulled this stunt in the mid-1980s. Would U.S. Marines be spending Christmas in Managua? Not that we favor that: Military measures against Mr. Ortega are unjustified and unnecessary. Still, it's remarkable how far the policy pendulum has swung. The Obama administration, which has treated Latin America's anti-democratic left with benign neglect, has not condemned the Nicaraguan land grab. In fact, the State Department has yet to say anything about the matter - even as the president of Panama has risked Mr. Ortega's ire by siding with Costa Rica.

Meanwhile Robert Callahan, the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, announced not long after the invasion that Nicaragua had been designated as eligible for aid from the Millennium Challenge Account, which is supposed to be reserved for countries that respect democratic principles. He added that he hoped Nicaragua would apply. A Millennium Challenge grant for Nicaragua was suspended in 2008 because of Mr. Ortega's abuses. But the Millennium Challenge Corp. has nevertheless deemed Nicaragua as a candidate for a new compact, according to criteria that include "rule of law" and "political rights."

The corporation's board, which includes several senior Obama administration officials, will decide next month whether Nicaragua actually will be considered for aid. It should make clear that Mr. Ortega has ruined his country's chances. To be fair, Mr. Callahan, anticipating that judgment, may have been trying to embarrass Mr. Ortega, since U.S. development programs are popular in Nicaragua. Still, the United States has raised the prospect of aiding a government that has just violated its own constitution and invaded a democratic neighbor. It's hard to find the principle in that policy.

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