THE WINDS OF WAR
In a dramatic flexing of military muscle, the Reagan administration last week took a giant step closer to overt U.S. involvement in the wars of Central America—then struggled to downplay a series of moves that have unnerved allies and enemies alike. With three U.S. naval battle groups in or steaming for Central American waters and large-scale ground manoeuvres planned soon in Honduras, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called a midweek press conference expressly designed to reassure the American public and an increasingly edgy Congress. Two days later, though, Reagan’s tough new line on Central America was dealt a stinging blow when the House of Representatives voted 228 to 195 to halt funding for CIAbacked counterrevolutionaries fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
That was exactly what Reagan had thought to avert by stressing his peaceful intentions at his meeting with the press. “We are not seeking a larger presence in that region, and U.S. forces have not been requested there,” Reagan insisted. “The United States stands firmly on the side of peace.” Reagan declared that he has been “heartened” by the peace efforts of the Contadora group—Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela and Panama— and “encouraged by some recent statements from Nicaragua and Cuba that seem to indicate that they, too, now recognize the merit of regional negotiations. I trust their words will be followed by positive actions.” As for U.S. military moves, he added, “These are manoeuvres of the kind we have been holding regularly and for years.” Reagan’s conciliatory words stood in striking contrast to what former CIA director Stansfield Turner described as “a major display of U.S. might, unprecedented in size for Central America.” The naval mobilization alone was awesome. The USS Ranger, carrying 70 warplanes and shielded by seven support
ships, was on station off the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. It will be joined in about a week by a six-ship battle group led by the newly recommissioned USS New Jersey, the United States’ only operational battleship. At the same time, the carrier Coral Sea is en route from the Mediterranean for exercises off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. The last time the United States assembled such seaborne striking power, Vermont Republican Senator Patrick Leahy noted ruefully, “was off the shores of Vietnam at the height of the fighting.”
Once in place, Pentagon officials say, the ships will conduct exercises designed to test U.S. capacity to halt arms shipments into or out of Nicaragua or even impose a formal blockade—a contingency that Reagan recently indicated he hoped proves unnecessary. However, both Reagan and the Pentagon went out of their way last week to e draw attention to what Ithey claimed was a maojor increase in shipgments of Soviet military
0 supplies to Nicaragua. 5; Reagan named one such
1 vessel, the Ulyanov, which he said had been loaded with arms, helicopters and other supplies when it passed through the Panama Canal bound for the Nicaraguan port of Corinto. The Pentagon, citing intelligence reports, said that Nicaragua had received 11 seaborne deliveries of weapons so far this year against 14 deliveries in the whole of last year. However, the statements could not be verified independently, and The Christian Science Monitor reported that in May, following a similar White House statement, Nicaraguan officials had permitted reporters to tour the port area in Corinto. One of the two Soviet freighters there at the time was unloading fertilizer, the other was loading cotton. There was a similar lack of substantiation of claims by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick that there has been a “very significant” increase in Soviet arms and Cuban personnel in Nicaragua. In fact, the commanding officer of the U.S. Caribbean Command in Key West, Fla.,
said last week that he had seen no sign of increases in Nicaraguan arms imports from Cuba this year. Other officers said last week that the flow may even have decreased.
In Washington, Pentagon planners are preparing for exercises in Honduras that will engage as many as 4,000 U.S. troops for the rest of this year. Codenamed Operation Ahuas Tara II (Big Pine II in the language of Nicaragua’s Moskito Indians), the manoeuvres will involve amphibious landings by ma-
riñes; infantry and artillery training; and a large-scale expansion of Honduran ports and airfields under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A key aim: facilitating the movement of U.S. troops and supplies into Honduras in any emergency.
Construction of a $150-million naval and air base on the Honduran coast is also expected to begin during the manoeuvres—part of what one top national security adviser describes as “a program for a significant and longlasting increase in the U.S. military presence in Central America.” The intent, one ranking state department official said last week, is “to persuade the bad guys in Nicaragua and Cuba that we are positioned to blockade, invade or interdict if they cross a particular threshold.” That undefined “threshold” could range from a Cuban military
intervention in the region to an imminent guerrilla victory in El Salvador. The vagueness is deliberate. But, says Turner, “One thing is clear: the president is not going to let another Central American country go Marxist.”
Despite Reagan’s assurance that “we have no military plans for intervention,” fear that the administration’s military moves were fast eclipsing its diplomacy has spurred a barrage of criticism at home and abroad. “I think it’s awful, absolutely awful, and frightening to the American people,” Democratic House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O’Neill snapped. “It’s an unneeded show of strength, and unneeded shows of strength can cause terrible problems.” The United States, said an alarmed editorial in The New York Times, “is being taken to war not only without a declaration from Congress but against its ex-
pressed desire. Americans, including Congress, are being asked to let the president and his CIA be the only judges of the national interest.”
A flurry of newspaper reports based on interviews with dissident intelligence officials early last week indicated that the administration may already have drawn up plans for a hefty boost in its extensive covert operations in Central America. Those revelations, in turn, gave an even sharper partisan edge to last week’s bitter battle in the House of Representatives over continued CIA funding for anti-Sandinista counterrevolutionaries. The “contras” have been waging sporadic guerrilla war with U.S. backing from bases in Honduras since 1981.
In one of the most raucous debates in memory, the mainly Democratic proponents of a bill to end funding for the
contras accused Republicans who favor maintaining the aid of warmongering. “Do we slip into another Vietnam,” asked Massachusetts Rep. Edward J. Markey, “or do we begin to stop another Vietnam from occurring?” There were prompt countercharges of being soft on communism. “I sometimes think that if Cuban troops landed in Miami,” snapped Michigan Republican William Broomfield, “there would be some in this body who would advocate negotiations so that we could save Georgia.”
Throughout a long day of parliamentary manoeuvring, opponents of the CIA-sponsored insurgency felt their strength growing, and the 228-to-195 margin in favor of halting the funding was far larger than had been expected. The defeat for the administration was largely symbolic, however. The Republican-controlled Senate is not expected to pass—or even to consider—a similar bill. Moreover, the CIA’s own huge budget contains enough discretionary funds to enable Reagan to continue fuelling the contras. Still, the House vote strips the “secret” war against Nicaragua of any real political legitimacy.
The issue of Central America is only beginning to build up a head of steam in U.S. political life. Judging from the caustic tone of the House debate, Republican candidates seem sure to accuse Democratic opponents of being dupes of the Soviet Union or Cuba in the 1984 election, which promises to develop ugly overtones of red-baiting.
While debate heated up in the United States, reaction to Reagan’s stance among Western allies ranged from cool to critical. But there was real anger in the region itself. Mexican career diplo-
mat Alfonso Garcia Robles, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize last year for his efforts to ban nuclear weapons from Latin America, charged Washington with violating UN Security Council Resolution 530. The resolution endorses the principles of self-determination and nonintervention. Referring to Reagan’s statement of support for the Contadora group’s peace efforts, the usually mild spoken Garcia Robles said, “It is doubtful if one could find a better example of cynicism in the entire history of international relations.” On the same note, leaders of five nations—Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Panama—declared that “nothing justifies the military or administrative presence in our region of colonial or neocolonial powers.”
In Panama City, meanwhile, foreign
ministers of the Contadora group caucused with their counterparts from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua to consider the various peace proposals put forward in the past two weeks.
In theory, at least, there is a wide measure of accord among the principals to the Central American crisis over what should be done to bring peace to the region. In a letter to the Contadora nations last week, Reagan laid out four principles he considers crucial to any regional accord: the strengthening of democratic institutions and elections; nonintervention, including a ban on “support for subversive elements that seek to destabilize other countries”; a verifiable withdrawal of all foreign military and security advisers; and better communications and co-operation among Central American states. Hardpressed, Nicaragua’s Chief of State Daniel Ortega Saavedra had proposed a similar six-point plan at the fourth anniversary celebration of the Sandinista revolution on July 19.
In Panama City last week Nicaragua’s hard-line interior minister, Tomás Borge, offered to set up “control mechanisms” to verify that no arms are passing from Nicaragua to El Salvador’s guerrillas. “This,” Borge noted, “is supposedly what most irritates the U.S. government.” Cuban President Fidel Castro also sent a telegram of support to the Contadora conclave, and Cuba’s deputy foreign minister, Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada, warned that “we are approaching a decisive moment. But we have a clear alternative to war in Contadora.” That, in fact, seemed likely to be the chief contribution of the session. “Everyone knows that Contadora will not produce practical results,” said an official involved in the talks. “That is why they support it. The important thing is that they talk, and while they talk they don’t shoot.”
The time for talking may be running out. One reason is that the Reagan administration has drastically raised the stakes in its struggle against the Sandinista regime in recent weeks. Initially, Washington justified support for the contras as a way to curb the flow of arms from Nicaragua to El Salvador. Recently, the White House has more clearly favored—despite public denials—the overthrow of the
UN Ambassador Kirkpatrick, in a recent address to a Nicaraguan exile group, supported the ousting of the Sandinistas from power. And Reagan himself suggested in mid-July that stability in Central America will be “extremely difficult” to achieve so long as the Sandinista junta rules in Managua.
A key aim of the planned buildup in U.S. covert operations that was re-
vealed last week is the revival of the contras’ flagging campaign against Managua. “The contras have been a deep disappointment so far to the administration,” argued Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. After more than a year of campaigning, critics charge that the contra operation resembles a slow-motion Bay of Pigs. The 5,000 to 10,000 anti-Sandinista guerrillas hold a bare handful of abandoned settlements nestled in the border mountains of northern Nicaragua. Moreover, the contras, commanded largely by veteran officers of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard, have arguably solidified, not eroded, the Sandinistas’ popular support. No Pasaran (they shall not pass) is a ubiquitous graffito in Nicaraguan towns.
In the United States criticism of the war has been mounting steadily in the Democratic party establishment.
But dissent extends much wider than that.
Last week’s newspaper reports about covert operations and about the extent and duration of the Honduran manoeuvres reflected strong misgivings high in the U.S. military, intelligence agencies and, perhaps, the White House itself. The unattributed revelations, in fact, appear to have derailed a carefully orchestrated administration public relations scenario and forced the president to stage an unplanned press conference to still the growing political furore. Administration officials, it seems, had hoped to focus attention—at least for a whileon the new Kissinger commission on Central American policy and the diplomatic efforts of Reagan’s special envoy to the region, Richard B. Stone. U.S. fleet and troop movements could then have unfolded in a prearranged sequence, increasing the pressure on Nicaragua and Cuba without alarming U.S. opinion. Plans for expanded covert operations were not due for disclosure, even to Congress, until after last week’s vote by the House on aid to the contras. But concerned officials disclosed the plans to the press beforehand.
The result was that preparations for the six-month-long Honduran manoeuvres appeared rushed and im-
promptu. “There are a lot of things that have not been worked out,” one senior Pentagon official conceded. “Those things are usually laid out two or three years ahead.” Instead, U.S. military officials were forced to cobble together plans for the Honduran ground operations at the Southern Command in Panama last week. Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd charged that “there is total confusion in Washington and in Central America as to what U.S. intentions are.”
At least part of that confusion was caused by a letter from Reagan, delivered to Venezuelan President Luis Herrera Campins last week by special envoy Stone. Reagan called for the crisis to be
resolved within the framework of the Organization of American States. Sources involved in the Latin American peace initiatives, noting that the United States had informally agreed not to take the crisis to either the OAS or the UN Security Council, accused Reagan of “trying to pull the rug out from under the Contadora group.”
However, that was not the only rebuff for Stone. In Costa Rica at week’s end he failed for the second time in a month to arrange a meeting with representatives of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR), the political wing of the Salvadoran guerrilla movement. FDR sources reported that the plan had fallen through because Stone let it be known in advance that the only topic he would discuss was the participation of the FDR in presidential elections scheduled to take place next year. The FDR had wanted a broader discussion of the Salvadoran crisis.
At his press conference Tuesday, Reagan charged that the press had overemphasized the military aspects of his policies in Central America. Three out of every four U.S. aid dollars in Central America, Reagan added, go for “economic and human development.” The premature accounts of the manoeuvres, however, came mainly from the U.S. military, which is increasingly uneasy about being pushed into an unpopular war. “The military learned its lesson in Vietnam,” said Turner. “It doesn’t want to be out front without popular support.” In what he described as an “unprecedented” development in his nine years in the Senate, Colorado Democrat Gary Hart last week told reporters that military officers ranging in rank from captain to colonel have been “voicing direct concern” to Congress “about the possible use of combat troops, based on what they perceive to be the intentions of this administration.” Top military personnel also remain fearful of an unwanted commitment.
The main concern of critics—from increasingly worried allies abroad to the 92 per cent of Americans who cannot distinguish which forces Washington supports in Nicaragua and El Salvador— is, can the administration reverse its highly visible course? “The inertia of motion toward war has begun in Central America,” warns Birns of the hemispheric council, “and everything lies in its path.” If current peace talks fail, and neither the Nicaraguan government nor El Salvador’s leftist guerrillas buckle, the Reagan White House may feel that it has to act or lose face. Kissinger captured the risks that such a predicament may pose in his memoirs The White House Years. “Perhaps the most difficult lesson for a national leader to learn,” he wrote, “is that with respect to military force, his basic choice is to act or refrain from acting. . . statesmen get no prizes for failing with restraint... if they are not prepared to prevail, they should not commit their nation’s power.” In the months to come, that lesson from the man who is now the president’s special commissioner on Central American policy may prove damagingly relevant to
Ronald Reagan’s recent actions._
San José, Costa Rica.