Today the House will revisit the contra aid debate. Shortly before the last vote in the House the administration abandoned its erstwhile strategy of all or nothing on the contra issue. Its new strategy has two facets. On the one hand, it has begun to offer paper compromises. On the other, it has tried to develop some public relations event equivalent to last year's famous trip to Moscow by Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega.
Despite strenuous effort, the administration has been unable to rally convincing majorities of the public or Congress to its position. The week following the last House vote on contra aid, the Senate voted by a narrow margin to approve a "compromise" plan which many regard as little more than a cosmetic makeover of the president's original proposal. Key features of that plan were that "only" one quarter of the $100 million, 18-month financing would be available in the first 90 days, only "defensive" weapons could be bought and the president could not release the remaining funds until an additional 15 days had expired, 15 days in which Congress could veto the decision to release the remaining funds and the president could veto any such congressional action. A thinner compromise could hardly be imagined and, indeed, only a thin majority of the Senate supported the president where he had hoped for an overwhelming vote.
But before the Senate vote, the administration believed the public relations coup it has so fervently desired had fallen into its hands, a highly trumpeted "invasion" of Honduras by Nicaraguan troops in pursuit of the contras. Originally the administration had difficulty in persuading the Hondurans that they should acknowledge the event at all. Their reluctance was understandable in light of the fact that the Nicaraguan action may have been larger than normal but nevertheless closely resembled hundreds of similar reported incidents over the last five years. For Honduras to raise a public outcry would, in its view, publicly acknowledge that the contras were being allowed to stay in Honduras.
Congressional leaders of both parties said the "invasion" had had little or no effect on the Senate vote. In the face of subsequent intelligence and press reports, which substantially reduced the scale of the incident, the administration's public relations machine has had no choice but to seek a new approach.
Now, before the second vote in the House, the administration has launched a new offensive on the Contadora front. The president says the Nicaraguans have "torpedoed" the Contadora peace process with their latest rejection of a proposed document that called on them to reduce their armed forces without their first being a cut-off in aid to the contras. Diplomatic damage experts have noted that the disappointment of the Contadora negotiators with the latest action by the Nicaraguan representatives was obvious. But the communique issued by the Contadora nations after the recent breakup contemplates getting back to work as soon as possible. It does not resemble an obituary. Nevertheless the administration has seized on the latest development and is now trying to exaggerate its consequence in yet another attempt to weaken opposition to its proposal, a proposal which would wring from both houses a reluctant declaration of a proxy war in Nicaracua.
The Contadora negotiators continually point to the fact that the contras merely frustrate the Contadora proctions know what they want from negotiations: regional security. But the administration wants the Sandinistas to negotiate cession of power, a concession it also says it never expects them to give without military defeat by the contras. Yet the continuation of the contra war will reduce, not enhance the security of Nicaragua's neighbors. The administration appears confused about its own goals and in any case is acting at cross purpose to Contadora, as the Latin Americans view it.
We should make no mistake. This is not a one-time vote for $100 million. We are on the eve of a historic decision. This vote is merely a down payment on hundreds of millions, perhaps billions to come over many years in support of the contras (indeed we have already spent $1 billion on military preparations in Central America). Much more important than the money, however, is the unprecedented and damaging decision we are about to make to support and finance the proxy invasion of a foreign country with which, for whatever purpose, we maintain diplomatic relations. This course of action sweeps aside the president's own stated concern, only a year ago, that to pursue such a course would be an act of war. In any case, our action would be totall unilateral with no support from our allies anywhere on the globe.
We desperately need a better strategy regarding Nicaragua and, despite the recent setback, Contadora is that strategy.
The Contadora process is far from dead. On the contrary, it has been the administration's own refusal to promote Contadora that has deprived the process of its moral authority to pressure the Nicaraguans. We have been unable to exploit the Nicarguans' recent action because the other Latin American participants do not view us as supporting Contadora. Reports say that several Central American foreign ministers have come away with the impression that their recent visits from U.S. envoys were actually attempts to undermine Contadora.
If we were wholeheartedly to support the Contadora process, we would vastly improve its possibilities for guaranteeing regional security, U.S. security and liberalization of the Nicaraguans' internal policies. The current policy of aid to the contras, accompanied by lip service support of Contadora, allows the Sandinistas plausibly to claim that their internal repressive policies, their military build-up, their reliance on thousands of Cuban advisers, their close ties to Moscow and their reluctance to negotiate are all the result of their need to repel the American- sponsored contra invasion.
The Contadora process offers us many opportunities to pressure Nicaragua productively that we do not now have. We would have the support of the rest of Central America to pressure Nicaragua to reduce its armed forces, expel the Cubans, honor its borders and cease support for insurgencies in other countries. We do not now have the support of those countries. We would have the support of the entire Western world when we pressured the Sandinistas to cease their lockdown of Nicaraguan society and honor basic human rights principles there. We do not have such support for our policy of backing the contras.
Some suggest that only the contras can put productive pressure on the Sandinistas, but we must remember that Nicaragua has a weak economy, totally dependent on world trade. Western opinion, if it is united, will mean a great deal to them, and they can ill afford to continue to disillusion Western democracies with their repressive internal policies.
Some Contadora ministers have confided that the contras are the best thing to happen to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The story goes that the Sandinistas can survive years of war with ease, but six months of peace would be a terrible threat because of the natural political pressures that would develop within Nicaragua.
If Contadora were ultimately to succeed, and with the enthusiastic backing of the United States, the pressure on Nicaragua to cooperate would be intense, and we would have the moral authority and international support to militarily back up the treaty if that ever became necessary.
What are the risks of Contadora? We need not fear the military loss of Central America while taks continue. Congress will support any action to repel Nicaraguan aggression against its neighbors, or to prevent the introduction of advanced weaponry or to prevent the use of Nicaragua as a base for Soviet and Cuban main forces. Our steady policy of strong support for the other democracies in the region has lessened the Nicaraguans opportunities for subversion, and we should continue that policy with determination. This is the approach that all the Central American countries we are trying to help urge upon us.
In contrast to Contadora, what risks does the continued policy of support for the contras present? What will we do if, after hundreds of millions of dollars, years of support, training and equipment and an incalculable investment of American political and diplomatic currency, the contras eventually face defeat? What if they face decimation or capture? Will we never send our own forces to help them no matter how desperate their situation? Or will we leave them to their fate in a giant replay of the Bay of Pigs? Will we then be negotiating to save the contras rather than to reform Nicaragua?
Perhaps I view the contras' prospects too pessimistically, although the overwhelming weight of American intelligence and military opinion, some of it on the public record, agrees that the contras have no chance of military victory. A bloody stalemate is their best hope, and even this analysis assumes a static situation without escalation on the other side.
I accept President Reagan's assurance that he has no present intention to send American troops to Nicaragua. But the president's pres intentions are not what will determine the outcome. We have all witnessed this inexorable process before. As our commitment increases, our options dwindle, and the day when we are out of options grows nearer.
I have trouble understanding the administration's strategy. On the one hand they say that the contras really don't have to win. They need only stalemate the Sandinistas to force them to the bargaining table to negotiate internal reforms in Nicaragua. But administration officials also almost invariably say that no Marxist- Leninist regime will ever voluntarily relinquish power. They often publicly use that as reason why direct U.S.-Nicaragua talks will not succeed. Stalemate will not be good enough. The contras must win or the Sandinistas will simply keep fighting with all the resources they can command or that the Soviets and Cubans can provide. If the contras must win, we must decide now what we are willing to do to ensure their victory, and if we are not prepared to use American forces we must be prepared to accept the possible defeat of our proxy army and the resultant embarrassment to ourselves.
In short, the contra option is a prescription for an unprecedented U.S. proxy invasion of a country with which we are not at war, a proxy invasion with almost no chance of military victory without American participation and no chance of productive results short of victory. Compared with the sometimes difficult course of negotiations, military action seems strong and decisive, but it is fraught with terrible risks. It leaves us with the probable choice of having to use our own forces or accept the defeat of the army we have armed and suborned. Compared with this, Contadora remains the compelling choice.