President Reagan is about to make what is supposed to be a last stand on behalf of the Nicaraguan rebels he calls "freedom fighters." Even White House officials acknowledge that he is likely to lose, and they are already blaming Democrats for the "surrender" of Nicaragua, a country that the United States does not own.
Beware when a White House official uses the word "surrender." Reagan used it in an interview with The Wall Street Journal Feb. 3, 1984, when he criticized then-House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) for advocating withdrawal of U.S. Marines deployed in Lebanon.
"He may be ready to surrender, but I'm not," Reagan said of O'Neill. Four days later, the president ordered a surprise pullout of the Marines. He did not call it surrender, or even withdrawal, but "a plan for redeployment of the Marines from Beirut airport to their ships offshore." If this euphemism is still in vogue, the contras presumably could be "redeployed" to Miami when their ammunition runs out.
Reagan's rhetoric is often strongest just before he switches course. In the statement directing the withdrawal from Beirut, where 241 U.S. servicemen had been killed by a suicide bombing the previous October, Reagan pledged that "we will stand firm to deter those who seek to influence Lebanon by intimidation."
Presidential compromises on tax increases and defense cuts also have been preceded by strongly worded pledges to hold the line on these issues. The scaled-down contra aid request that Reagan plans to submit to Congress Tuesday fits the pattern. House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) calls it "the incredible shrinking contra aid request."
Overall, Reagan has been steadfast in his commitment to the contras, who have sought for six years by open and covert means to overthrow a Marxist-leaning Sandinista government that has used their very existence as a pretext for brutal repression and an unremitting arms buildup. It is certainly true that contra military pressure has helped wrest democratic concessions from the Sandinistas. It is also true that some of the concessions, such as lifting a six-year state of emergency, undid actions originally taken partially as a response to the contras.
Reagan's contention that keeping the contras in the field will push the Sandinistas to further concessions may be right. But if he really wanted to make progress toward peace and freedom in Central America, he would be sitting down with Democrats to work out a bipartisan regional approach rather than maneuvering to obtain political advantage from the rejection of contra aid.
The Democrats are hardly blameless. For years, they have questioned Reagan's motives and accused him of wanting merely a military solution in Nicaragua. I think they are misreading Reagan, but it's difficult to make this case after a week in which the usually mild-mannered White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater has charged that Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and other Democrats "want a surrender, and they think surrender is the best way to achieve peace." It is war, not peace, that most people would consider the alternative to "surrender."
The administration effort to hold Democrats accountable for whatever happens in Nicaragua has superficial appeal, but it reflects poor political judgment and worse policy. It is bad politics because a solid majority of Americans, as all polls have consistently shown, opposes contra aid. It is bad policy because it suggests that Reagan now prefers the easy course of blaming Democrats rather than the hard one of trying to find a bipartisan middle ground that might advance the Central American peace process.
Reagan, in the last year of his presidency, is playing for the history books. He is depending on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to prove as awful as advertised and crush lingering opposition once the contras are gone. The Democrats, without calculating the consequences, are relying on the slender hope that diplomatic pressure from neighboring nations with weaker armies can turn Nicaragua toward democracy. It is a debate designed by both sides for political recrimination instead of policy success.
Reaganism of the Week: Responding to applause from political appointees when he began a speech at Constitution Hall last Tuesday, the president said: "My goodness, if they'd have done this for 'Bedtime for Bonzo,' I never would have left Hollywood."