The president says the problem about Central America is one of confusion, and he's right. But a major source of the confusion comes from the way he states his case. His latest news conference remarks on Central America, for instance, provide a notable example of how he contributes to the confusion he seeks to dissipate.
"Maybe the people are disturbed because of the confused pattern that's been presented to them," he says, and goes on to cite the planned U.S. military maneuvers off the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua as merely routine affairs, the kinds of operations we do all the time.
"Why are maneuvers that we have performed before and regularly suddenly treated with such suspicion when only, well, within this year, last spring we had military maneuvers in Honduras," he says. "And last year we had naval maneuvers in the Caribbean, and no one seemed to be excited about them at all. So, it's just that there's no confidence in the fact that when I say these are maneuvers of the kind we've been holding regularly and for years."
But they are not routine maneuvers. They are immeasurably different in nature and magnitude of operation and in their timing.
The present planned Honduran exercise, which took major congressional figures on both sides of the party aisle by surprise, calls for naval forces totaling 19 ships, among them two aircraft carriers and a battleship, 140 warplanes and 16,500 officers and men. Between 3,000 and 4,000 additional U.S. personnel will operate on the ground in Honduras while the naval forces maneuver off both coastlines.
By comparison, the previous U.S.-Honduran exercise to which the president referred (and which took place last winter, not spring) involved 1,600 U.S. military personnel as opposed to the present some 20,000. The earlier exercise, Ahuas Tara (Big Pine), involved no U.S. combat units, as will be employed in Ahuas Tara II this time. In addition, the latest maneuver reportedly will leave behind new airstrips and training facilities for use by the U.S.-backed forces fighting the government in Nicaragua and guerrillas in El Salvador.
Some difference, Mr. President.
Most astonishing of all, after belaboring his critics for raising questions about the motivations behind this massive show of force at a critical juncture in our Central American relations, the president went on to admit he really wasn't well informed about our operations. At least that's what his words indicated:
"It hardly seems to me that those ships are going there, and I don't know that they're going to be there six months," he said. "I don't know what the length of time for the training is. I don't know the number of ships involved. But I didn't know the number that were involved in the Caribbean exercises."
Some concession. And now who's confused?
Much has been made recently about the Vietnam analogy, and the president has attempted to lay this one firmly to rest. "There is no comparison with Vietnam and there's not going to be anything of that kind in this," he says unequivocally.
But here, too, he faces problems of his making. The real "lesson" of Vietnam involves something other than disputes about how best to combat communism. It involves what happens when a president loses credibility with the people either by not telling it straight, or by seeming to have misinformed the public.
By curious happenstance, the day's mail after the president's press conference about confusion and Central America brought the two latest soundings of the Gallup Poll. Back to back, the Gallup headlines sounded an implicit reminder, and warning, of the fate that befell Lyndon Johnson a generation ago at the peak of his presidency. The first one read:Reagan Job Performance Rating At Highest Level in 16 Months
The second one read: Salvador Still Seen As Potential 'Vietnam'
For Ronald Reagan, those ought to serve as a spur to address head-on growing public doubts about his Central American policies and motivations. Lay it out, Mr. President, loud and clear, and where confusion exists look to your own house as well as your critics.
NOTE: As a postscript to last week's column about the president's appearance before the International Longshoremen's Association and the praise he showered on that aromatic union and its leaders, the extraordinary comments by the attorney general of the United States on Thursday deserve equal attention. "If the suggestion here is that we should boycott an organization because there may be individuals connected with that organization who have been convicted of some criminal activity," he said, "if that is the suggestion, it has remarkable ramifications because I assume, based on what has recently happened, there might be circumstances under which we then have to terminate our relationships with Congress." William French Smith, who seems to have an unerring talent for saying the wrong things at the wrong time, offered that observation on the occasion of the president's signing an executive order creating a crime commission "to break the power of the mob in America." Which makes you wonder whether he and the president think Congress to be the body infiltrated by organized crime and intend to make it their target? If so, what great news for the ILA and the Teamsters. At least they can breathe easy.