The Iran-contra affair continues to dominate the headlines. To members of Congress and most media commentators, the focus of attention is what laws, if any, the Reaganites may have broken in secretly channeling funds to the contras.
Concern with legality is certainly proper. We don't want our presidents to be above the law—even though there's a long tradition of presidents making their own foreign policy in defiance of Congress. (FDR's covert assistance to Claire Chenault's Flying Tigers in pre–World War II China is a nearly exact parallel with Reagan's aid to the contras via General Secord's network).
But the near-hysteria over legality in this case is obscuring the far more important issue of what the government of a free society should do about a case such as Nicaragua. By now it is evident to anyone who reads the newspaper that the Sandinista regime is a classic Marxist Leninist one. We've seen it all before in Cuba, in Grenada, in Ethiopia.
What REASON author Jack Wheeler calls "franchise totalitarianism" has taken hold in Nicaragua—Cuban military advisors, East German secret police, Bulgarian technicians, etc., all orchestrated by the Soviet Union. Hapless Nicaraguans are watched over by Cuban-style neighborhood-defense committees. The only non-Sandinista newspaper, La Prensa, is closed down after being heavily censored for years. The Catholic Church is endlessly harassed.
No one who values human liberty can fail to be disturbed by all this, especially when it is happening so close to our own borders. But to say that is not, per se, to justify U.S. government efforts to overthrow the Sandinistas.
Despite John F. Kennedy's grandiose pledge to "bear any burden, pay any price" to defend liberty anywhere on earth, it is simply not our government's job to overthrow all the world's violators of human rights. In a free society, the government is hired by us to protect and defend our rights, not to be a global do-gooder. Vietnam should have taught us the high cost, in lives and dollars, of following JFK's pledge to its logical conclusion.
But does this principle imply withdrawal from interaction with other countries—isolationism? Hardly. What it does is to give us a standard for judging when some form of intervention is justified, namely when there is a clear threat to the survival of the United States as a free society. And it is on this issue that the debate over Nicaragua ought to be focused.
Many liberals tell us that tiny Nicaragua can't possibly pose a threat to the mighty United States. Sure, they have put in a repressive system, but that's the Nicaraguans' own affair. Stop harassing the Sandinistas, they say, and they will calm down, lift censorship, and not be so dependent on Cuban/Soviet aid.
Naive nonsense, reply many conservatives. The Sandinistas are, after all, communists, and once they've secured a foothold in Nicaragua, they will proceed to subvert their neighbors, threatening Panama (and the canal) and eventually Mexico, right on our doorstep. Then, too, the Sandinistas might grant the Soviets military basing rights in exchange for their help, as Cuba and Vietnam have done. That would pose a significant military threat to this country. Thus, say conservatives, it would be better to overthrow the Sandinistas now, while they're weak, even if this means sending in the Marines.
Are the conservatives who raise these points simply Cold War extremists, or are these realistic threats? The liberals are certainly right that Nicaragua today is no military threat to the United States, but how imminent must a threat be to justify preemptive action?
These are the kinds of questions that ought to be under intense discussion today. But instead we have a media circus over the technicalities of Colonel North's activities. Instead of immersing itself in minutiae, Congress ought to be asking the administration for its evidence concerning direct Soviet involvement in Nicaragua. How else can people decide whether there is a sufficient threat to justify actions to overthrow the Sandinista regime?
Were this kind of discussion taking place, we could also have an intelligent debate about the Reagan Doctrine, about giving aid to indigenous groups fighting to overthrow tyrannical regimes. Americans are quite rightly reluctant to send in the Marines, unless the threat to this country is clear-cut and imminent. Such actions are costly, difficult, and unpopular in Latin America (where previous interventions have often helped dictators). But as an alternative to military intervention, giving people the means to throw off their oppressors is as American as our own Revolution (which would not have succeeded but for aid from European governments and individuals).
To be sure, such a policy may be fraught with practical difficulties. Should such aid be carried out openly or attempted covertly? Should the CIA get involved in planning and training, as it has with the contras, or should we give only money to all eligible groups and let them sink or swim? Indeed, who should be eligible at all? What standards of conduct must such a group meet (no terrorism, certainly)? And what about its political aims?
Unfortunately, these questions are not the ones being asked today in Washington. Oliver North and his escapades is not the real issue. What matters is how a free society decides to cope with a Soviet backed threat near its borders.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Real Issue Is Nicaragua".