Two top administration figures, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and presidential counselor Edwin Meese III, said yesterday that time is running out on American patience with Nicaragua but both declined to disclose what U.S. action is being contemplated.
"We have not given up on Nicaragua but the hours are growing rather short," said Haig, complaining of a "drift toward totalitarianism" and "a high influx of sophisticated armaments" from the Soviet Union and its allies.
The secretary of state said that Nicaragua's leadership "has rejected" U.S. offers of political accommodation made through diplomatic channels of in recent weeks.
Meese, speaking in similar terms, said "the hour is late" in view of the Nicaraguan military buildup, which he said includes Cuban participation. The White House aide said, "there is a threat to other countries in Central America, and that's why there is a great deal of concern, not just by the United States but by other countries in Latin America."
Questioners were unsuccessful in obtaining details of the likely U.S. reponse from Haig, Meese and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger--who appeared separately on the Sunday interview programs of the three major television networks.
The interviews covered a range of foreign policy topics, including President Reagan's proposal in the forthcoming U.S.-Soviet negotiations on medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe, a possible U.S.-Soviet summit meeting, and forthcoming U.S.-Israeli talks on strategic cooperation in the Middle East.
Haig appeared on "This Week With David Brinkley" (ABC, WJLA), Meese on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM), and Weinberger on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC).
The effort to discover even the drift of administration thinking about dealing with Nicaragua ran into a refusal to divulge contingency plans or to accept or reject military action as a likely possibility.
Meese, who went a bit further than the others, narrowed the range of potential actions somewhat, ruling out the use of U.S. "military ground forces" within Nicaragua but declining to rule out a naval blockade around that country.
Meese also qualified President Reagan's press conference statement Nov. 10 that "we have no plans for putting Americans in combat any place in the world." The White House counselor defined this as "no present plans" for use of American forces. Asked for a time limit, he responded, "The present is the present and I would say the foreseeable future."
One of the options being contemplated, Meese also said, "involves putting pressures on Nicaragua by other nations in the area."
Haig appeared to be hinting at the same point by saying it is vitally important that "neighboring states" as well as "the forces of freedom in Nicaragua" recognize the threat arising from the "huge military structure" being created in Nicaragua. He said the influx of weaponry is from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe "directly through Cuba."
Haig is scheduled to fly to Mexico City this morning for two days of talks with Mexican leaders, and to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia Dec. 2 for a meeting of the Organization of American States. U.S. concerns about Nicaragua and Central America are expected to figure in both sets of talks.
On other foreign policy topics, the three high-ranking officials said:
* The United States does not consider Soviet statements last week to be a rejection of Reagan's proposals for the Euromissile negotiations. Haig said a sharp Soviet reaction could be expected because the U.S. plan was "somewhat of a surprise" to Moscow.
Weinberger declined to say specifically how the United States would respond if the negotiations still continued "with some slight indications of progress" two years from now, providing a rationale for delay by some Europeans at the time that new U.S. missiles are scheduled to be deployed on the continent. "I don't think anyone can say what will happen in 1983-or-4 from the point of view of the negotiations," Weinberger said.
* The development of the Euromissile negotiations "will be one of the signs" affecting the chances for a summit meeting between Reagan and Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev, according to Meese. If there seems to be "a reasonable chance of reaching constructive results" from a summit, "then I'm sure the president will be interested," he said.
Haig said Soviet-American communications, including more than 20 meetings between himself and Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin, had been part of an evolution in the superpower relationship.
* The forthcoming Washington talks of Weinberger and Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon "very likely" will result in a joint memorandum of understanding about strategic cooperation of the two nations, according to Weinberger.
Comments by Weinberger and Haig suggested, however, that military cooperation will be more limited than Israel would like. Both officials spoke of pre-positioning of U.S. medical supplies in Israel, and Haig also mentioned "coordinated naval exercises" and "some cooperative planning" against external threats.
Sharon has been pushing for broader cooperation, but Haig cited "political constraints," including the requirement for good U.S. relations with moderate Arab regimes, as an element in American thinking.