Six years of off-again, on-again funding have left the Contras dangling by a thread. Such an irresponsible policy satisfies no one—not the conservatives who worry about Nicaragua becoming another Cuba nor the liberals who are upset about our attempting to overthrow an admittedly undemocratic government.
We are long overdue for a credible alternative policy toward Nicaragua, one that Americans can unite behind. While such a plan would not attempt to topple the regime in Nicaragua, neither would it rely on "defending our country only at the Mexican border."
1. First of all, tell Daniel Ortega in operational terms what we view as a clear and present danger to our national security interests in Central America: Examples probably include the introduction of high-performance aircraft such as the MiG21, invasion of another country, attempts to jeopardize the Panama Canal, and surely Soviet basing of missiles and submarines. Make the list specific and the items verifiable. Be prepared to use U.S. air and naval power to enforce the limits.
2. Make Soviet military aid to the Sandinistas a priority issue in negotiations with the Soviets. Moscow is providing about $1.5 billion a year in economic and military aid to Nicaragua—over 90 percent of it military. This should be of grave concern to us. Nicaragua already has by far the largest military in Central America and recently revealed plans to more than double its troop levels, to 600,000, and introduce sophisticated weaponry by 1995.
But the Sandinistas cannot possibly achieve their planned militarization without massive infusions of aid from their Soviet comrades. Our method of dealing with this has been to try to raise the cost of Soviet assistance via the Contras—an indirect strategy paid for not only in U.S. tax dollars but in Nicaraguan lives.
This is not an issue between the United States and Nicaragua. It is between the United States and the Soviets. The Soviets are so eager to deal on other issues? Fine, let's not be wimps about "linking." We can force their hand on this item as a condition of our willingness even to come to the bargaining table on strategic nuclear forces or whatever they are begging to negotiate.
Of course, if it's "too small an issue" to risk torpedoing an agreement over nukes, that's different. But then we should be honest about how threatening the Soviet presence in Nicaragua really is.
3. Discontinue all government assistance to the Contras. In general, aid to resistance movements is fraught with difficulties: Just as with welfare, the government runs the risk of creating permanent dependents. Just as with a planned economy, the government has no special ability to pick winners. The assistance is probably most effective if secret, but secrecy for very long is inimical to a free society. If the effort appears successful, there are intractable problems with when to cut off aid (as we're discovering now in Afghanistan) and what responsibility we bear for the regime that comes to power.
In addition, we have a history of intervention in the region that gives someone like Ortega a rhetorical, guilt-inducing edge the minute the U.S. government lifts a finger. One major benefit of cutting off government funding of the Contras is that it would remove this excuse for the Sandinistas' military buildup and insistence on dictatorial powers.
4. Allow any and all private aid to the Contras. This will put the Contras on the same footing as the Sandinistas, who are the beneficiaries of U.S. citizens' donation of funds, medicine, and other goods, including their own labor (and for all we know, arms).
At the same time, as the Reagan administration has already made moves to do, establish a clear and well-publicized prohibition on any government officials soliciting or funneling money or arms for or to the Contras. The point is to leave Americans free to express moral outrage over the Sandinistas' oppressive regime (or to express sympathy for the Sandinista revolution) but to keep the U.S. government out of this effort. True, the Sandinistas can still try to use private aid as evidence of "Yanqui imperialism." But if the government is clean and insists that our citizens can and do support whichever side they choose, the rhetorical force of this accusation will be lost.
To be effective in removing the threat of Uncle Sam's intervention from Ortega's bully pulpit repertoire, the government must be in a position to take "the Gary Hart challenge": "Put a tail on us. You won't find anything." This requires putting teeth in the ban—significant fines and prison terms for government officials who violate the law. And, of course, it requires a president who knows what his executive branch is up to.
5. Clean up our foreign aid act. We worry that the poverty of neighboring countries provides fertile soil for the Sandinistas in their professed goal of sowing the seeds of leftist revolution. But at the same time, we back not just neutral but anti-free-market "reforms" with U.S. technical and financial assistance. As David Asman recently reported in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. aid to El Salvador since 1980 has made a shambles of that country's economy. "It's bad enough that we had to be guinea pigs in a U.S. social experiment," complained one opposition leader there. "But at least it could have been a free-market experiment instead of a socialist one." This is unconscionable and obviously counterproductive.
6. Without throwing our weight around, use liberally the force of rhetoric and diplomacy to support regional efforts toward peace and freedom. The Central Americans have a direct incentive to see to it that the Sandinistas don't "export their revolution." That is clearly one objective of the Arias plan, hence the accord's provisions for signatory nations eventually to negotiate troop and armament levels, hence Arias's critical reaction when a Sandinista defector revealed in December the plans for a massive military buildup.
We should milk the Central Americans' resolve to deal with the Sandinistas for all it's worth. On-the-street surveys in Nicaragua's neighbors demonstrate that, when it comes to the Marxist regime in Nicaragua, the people closest to them seem to assess their intentions and virtues more realistically than the citizens of the United States and certainly more honestly than the denizens of Capitol Hill. According to polls conducted by Gallup's Costa Rican affiliate, large majorities in Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala believe that the government of Nicaragua treats its people unjustly and represents only a minority of its people.
This program focuses cleanly on the primary duty of government in a free society: defense of the nation. While it may pain us to see in Nicaragua an all-powerful state more oppressive than its Somocista predecessor, we simply cannot hope to solve this problem for the Nicaraguan people, by the coercive power of our state, and remain true to our principles of liberty and democracy. But we can and should encourage private citizens and Central Americans to take an active role in undermining the Sandinista state.
And to the extent that Nicaragua is our problem—that is, to the extent the Marxist Sandinista regime poses a potential threat to the security of the United States—we must address that problem directly at its source, by drawing a line which the Soviets and the Sandinistas must not cross.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Beyond Contra Aid".