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How US policies could invite Cuban confrontation

The escalating border war between Honduras and Nicaragua increases the possibility that Washington's policy in Central America will involve it in a major conflagration. Whether by design or inadvertence, the United States is moving steadily toward a confrontation with Cuba. Congress must address this danger into which the US's commitments in the region may well lead it.

Until recently the conflicts in Central America had been relatively isolated. Now they are battles in a regional war. As a result, US commitments to Honduras and El Salvador increasingly are likely to propel the US directly into a war against Nicaragua. Such a war could bring Cuba into a direct confrontation with the United States, and in turn the Soviet Union might come to Cuba's defense.

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Current policy places the US in this precarious situation because it connects US commitments to the border war between Honduras and Nicaragua. First, the US has spent at least $19 million on covert operations in Honduras against Nicaragua. Some of this has gone to former national guardsmen and Miskito Indians who have killed hundreds of civilians in border raids. The border war puts Nicaragua under internal pressure to strike against the raiders in Honduras. While Honduras now has the best equipped air force in the region, Nicaraguan pilots are training to fly Soviet MIGs. These will give Nicaragua the capability to attack Honduras.

Second, in pursuit of its commitment to El Salvador, the US has enlisted Honduras to interdict arms allegedly coming from Nicaragua. Supposedly in this cause the US has constructed a more sophisticated communications network and radar system in Honduras. But such facilities are also the sort which the US would need to wage a serious war against Nicaragua. They are further evidence to the Nicaraguans that the US is preparing for war, and this contributes to their anxiety.

If Nicaragua does attack Honduras, in response to the border raids or as a preemptive move against a feared US-sponsored war, the US would need to help Honduras. Its covert operations and military assistance carry that obligation. Under those circumstances, could the US restrain itself and avoid intervening in Nicaragua? There are officials in the Pentagon and State Department who have endorsed a Hondu-ran-Nicaraguan war for two years, for the very purpose of legitimizing a US attack against Nicaragua. Off the record others have acknowledged recently that hostilities in Honduras could force the US to confront Nicaragua directly, and that they are taking such a possibility into greater account now.

Those who advocate greater pressure on Nicaragua believe that Cuba will not support its Central American ally, or, if Cuba does fight, that the Soviet Union will not come to Cuba's aid. In either case, they have argued, the US stands to gain. In the former case it could rid itself of the Nicaraguan nuisance. In the latter it could claim the larger prize: strategic attacks inside Cuba that would be justified by the war against it in Nicaragua. But the gamble is based on little more than hunch, and the cost could be nuclear war.

Indeed, Cuban leaders are not sure how they would respond to a US-Nicaraguan war. On the one hand there are 5,000 Cuban teachers, doctors, and military advisers in Nicaragua who would need to be protected. More significant, Cuba is pondering whether it could allow a regime it has so staunchly supported to be crushed without coming to its aid. In part Cuba is pressured by its own rhetoric and would appear to be opportunistic if it shrank from battle. These appearances are as important for Cuban domestic consumption as they are for Cuba's foreign policy.

On the other hand, Cuba is considering whether the Nicaraguan revolution is worth the potential sacrifice of the Cuban revolution. It is also questioning whether the Soviet Union would defend Cuba, and whether it could fashion a policy that would pressure the Soviet Union to support it. The odds on Cuban involvement in Nicaragua or Soviet support for Cuba are neither as favorable nor easily calculated as US war planners would have us believe.

With his ''vital interest'' rationale for US policy in El Salvador, President Reagan has made the situation more precarious by opening himself up to jingoistic congressional pressure. Yet the Congress can also play a constructive role. In the last decade it has earned the legitimacy to define foreign policy goals and US interests. The Congress could reduce tension and the possibility of confrontation with the Soviet Union by challenging the President's assertion of where vital US interests lie, and by barring intervention in Nicaragua. The Congress need not embrace the President's high-risk policy in Central America. But it needs to develop a regional policy, because the war in El Salvador has the potential to be a holocaust.

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