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Washington's debacle in Central America

The meeting of nonaligned countries in Managua in January sharply criticized United States policies in Central America. Predictably, American diplomats are trying to make light of this by saying they would have expected nothing else, that the nonaligned movement is always unbalanced in its condemnation of the US.

Whether or not one accepts such an evaluation of the nonaligned movement, its criticism of the US cannot be so lightly dismissed, for the nonaligned countries are by no means alone in such views. On the contrary, no major government in the world supports the US approach in Central America. Certainly our West European allies do not, nor do Canada, Mexico, or most other Latin American governments. In Nicaragua, US policies are rejected not only by the Sandinista government but also by the opposition.

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Skepticism regarding the US course is far from groundless. The secret war being pursued against Nicaragua, for example, is so obviously counterproductive that one can only wonder what legerdemain of reasoning produced it. How could we possibly have chosen the worst alternative of all: to ally ourselves with the Somocistas ? Indeed, very little about the secret war makes any sense. Yet, despite strong expressions of congressional concern, it continues and, with it, the danger of regionalizing the conflict.

In terms of moderating the Sandinista government's actions, both internally and internationally, the US could have accomplished much more through diplomacy than through confrontation. The diplomatic option was, and perhaps still is, available. Early in 1981 the Nicaraguans indicated a willingness to enter into serious negotiations, and on Aug. 13 of last year they handed the US a diplomatic note offering to discuss all issues. This was followed up in November with the announcement that Nicaragua would not be acquiring MIG aircraft, an issue to which the Reagan administration seemed to have attached great importance.

But none of this moved the administration. It had come to office determined to get rid of the Sandinistas, not to deal with them. Obviously that remains the case. It did not even respond to the Aug. 13 overture.

Our approach in Nicaragua may prove to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having described the Sandinistas as such dangerous radicals that it could not deal with them, the administration launched its secret war. This will neither turn the Sandinistas out of power nor moderate their actions. It does, however, drive them in an even more radical direction, and it so polarizes the situation that in time it may indeed be impossible to deal with them. Meanwhile, we have undercut the democratic opposition and chosen for ourselves the worst possible allies. Astonishing! It is as if the administration had deliberately set out to follow the most inadvisable course imaginable in Nicaragua.

Its approach is little better in El Salvador, which is the linchpin of the entire Central American equation. Unless the fighting there can be ended, there is little chance of easing tensions elsewhere, and there are only two ways of ending it: (1) through military victory or (2) through a negotiated solution. To be acceptable to the Salvadorean people and to world public opinion, the latter option would of course have to include elections.

The guerrillas increasingly are going over to the offensive, and the recent revolt of Col. Sigifredo Ochoa points up serious divisions in the armed forces. Military victory, then, seems further away than ever - indeed, probably unattainable. We are faced with what most observers recognize as a bloody stalemate. One therefore need have no sympathy for the armed opposition to conclude that negotiations, culminating in elections, are the only way out. Yet, both the administration and the Salvadorean government continue airily to reject any form of dialogue.

On Oct. 14 of last year the guerrillas proposed discussions without preconditions and suggested that all sectors of Salvadorean society be brought into those discussions, e.g., the church, the business community, students, and labor unions. They accept the proposition that a dialogue should lead to elections. During an interview with me in December, Democratic Revolutionary Front leader Guillermo Ungo emphasized the seriousness of purpose behind the offer to begin discussions. ''Unless we are to fight until all on both sides are dead and El Salvador is in ruins,'' he said, ''we must at some point begin to talk; why not now?''

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A good question. Why not? Certainly without a prior negotiating process, the armed opposition will not be in a position to participate in future elections, which would then be as truncated and inconclusive as were the last ones.

In short, the administration's Central American policies simply are not working. No wonder, if they are based on analysis such as that which converts Rios Montt in Guatemala from one of the bloodiest violators of human rights in the world to a fine fellow who has simply been given a ''bum rap'' by the media. The administration now is pushing to resume military assistance to Guatemala, assuring us that Rios Montt has pacified the countryside and wishes to turn to civic action programs.

But if the countryside has been pacified, what is the crying need for military equipment? And would it not make more sense to encourage civic action programs with economic rather than military assistance?

Unfortunately, the administration gives no evidence of changing course in Central America; rather, we can expect more of the same. It is not surprising that on Jan. 21 the administration certified to Congress that El Salvador was making progress in the area of human rights and thus was eligible for continued US assistance. No one really believes there has been progress, and the administration has done little to encourage any.

Still, it is not likely simply to cut and run in El Salvador. More distressing than the certification, therefore, is the administration's continuing failure to push for a dialogue and an end to the conflict. Unless the US is capable of imaginative diplomacy, the stalemate may become a disaster. Elsewhere, joint US-Honduran military maneuvers began Feb. 1 near the Nicaraguan border. Nicaragua regards this as provocative.

We are thus heightening the chances of a regional conflict. That this is the last thing we should want seems to daunt us not at all.

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