President Reagan, unable to win more congressional aid for "contra" rebels fighting Nicaragua's government, yesterday ordered a broad review of U.S. policy toward Nicaragua and a report on "the full family of measures that can be taken" in the region.
A senior State Department official said the review is "tactical, not strategic," and does not signal that any fundamental change in attitude is being contemplated.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said that in rejecting Reagan's request for $14 million in aid to the antigovernment rebels, Congress "has in a way compromised the U.S. position" in Central America. "It is now back on the shoulders of the administration . . . to take some initiative." Speakes said Secretary of State George P. Shultz and national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane would direct the review, but that it would be "short-term" and could result in "various options that are taken over the course of time" rather than any written or public package.
Other officials said Reagan would be given a report before he leaves Tuesday for the economic summit meeting in Bonn.
Reagan has said repeatedly that the contra military effort against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government was the centerpiece of his policy there, but by refusing to vote for "lethal" military aid, Congress has forced the administration to take another approach.
At the same time, this week's debate in Congress indicated bipartisan support for some type of U.S. pressure on Nicaragua, without deciding whether the line should be drawn at diplomatic efforts, at economic sanctions, at trucks and boots for the contras, or at some other point. Neither Congress nor the administration has decided whether the fundamental goal is to oust the Sandinistas or to convert them to the U.S. form of democratic process.
One official said "loss of the proxy option" as a way to apply military pressure will require new emphasis on direct U.S. actions that previously were ignored or overshadowed by the focus on helping the rebels militarily.
"Over the next several days, the administration will be reviewing the full family of measures that can be taken to influence the situation in Nicaragua," Speakes said. The idea, he said, is "to achieve our policy goals there of a free society, ready to have free elections; the immediate goal being an opportunity for the Sandinistas to talk with the people who have problems with the way they run the government."
That appeared to indicate a renewed administration push on the Sandinistas to open negotiations with the contras, a step Nicaragua has refused to take.
Speakes would not give details of the options under consideration but said most would not require congressional approval. Asked if the "family of options" includes U.S. military action, he replied, "I wouldn't raise that scare tactic, no."
The administration has asked Congress to provide $28 million in covert military aid for the contras through the Central Intelligence Agency in fiscal 1986, according to congressional sources.
Although Speakes at first said administration encouragement for private funding for the rebels would be an option, he later said McFarlane had ruled that out. "Private funding could occur, but that's not something the government would be responsible for," he quoted McFarlane as saying. "We're reviewing government options."
Wooing Senate votes this week, Reagan offered in a letter to consider economic sanctions, condemn human rights abuses by the contras and renew bilateral talks with Nicaragua if his aid request were passed. Speakes and other officials said denial of the request has nullified the letter, and that new negotiations between the United States and Nicaragua would not be appropriate now. However, economic sanctions and pressure for human rights are likely to be part of any new initiative.
The fundamental administration approach to the region, forged in the aftermath of Vietnam, has been to halt the growth of Soviet influence in Central America without sending in U.S. troops. But the emergence of a strong human-rights pressure bloc in Congress shaped that policy in unexpected ways, first in El Salvador and now in Nicaragua.
In El Salvador, the administration sought to aid the government against a leftist guerrilla insurgency. Congress resisted providing the funds on grounds the Salvadoran government was involved in torture and widespread murder. The compromise policy that resulted put stiff conditions on a reduced amount of aid, but it is that hybrid approach that administration officials now cite as successful in moving El Salvador toward democracy.
Similarly, the Reagan administration began its approach to Nicaragua by providing aid to the antigovernment contras who, officials said, would stop Nicaragua's arms supply to the Salvadoran left. But critics argued that the contras were attacking innocent civilians and illegally trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Congress cut off military aid to the contras on that basis. Some other hybrid approach now appears likely to emerge that will provide support for the rebels.
Numerous senators being pressed for their votes this week surprised the administration by repeatedly suggesting economic sanctions as an alternative to military ones. Aside from the legal difficulty of halting U.S. trade without breaking diplomatic relations with Nicaragua, officials had shied from the prospect of seeing the evening news filled with starving Nicaraguans blaming their plight on Washington.
But many members of Congress have concluded after visiting Nicaragua that the economy there is virtually a shambles, partly from mismanagement, partly from the flight of the middle class and partly from contra attacks. Also, because only 18 percent of Nicaragua's exports are sold in the United States, according to State Department estimates, lawmakers regard a cut there as less damaging to noncombatants than military attack.