The United States has an opportunity to show that it is open to a peaceful rather than a military solution to the complex problems of Central America. It can do so without letting down its guard. The opportunity presents itself because Nicaragua has stated its willingness to take part in international talks and to negotiate the question of arms supplies to El Salvador and other questions. By responding positively to Nicaragua's bid to talk, the Reagan administration can reassure critics at home and abroad who fear the US is moving in the direction of increased military intervention - fears enhanced by the ordering of US naval exercises in the region.
This does not necessarily mean the Sandinista government is prepared to negotiate seriously. But why not find out? Why not quietly explore the possibilities? The Nicaraguan proposal seems to represent a more conciliatory position.Previously the Nicaraguans insisted on bilateral talks with Honduras, the home base for anti-Sandinista rebels funded covertly by the US. Now they seem prepared to include other nations of the region and to discuss a whole range of issues, including a halt on all arms supplies to El Salvador, a nonaggression pact with Honduras, and the prohibition of foreign military bases in the region. Multilateral talks are precisely what many Latin American leaders and US specialists have been recommending.
This also does not mean that the US or other countries of the region should close their eyes to the growing leftist radicalization of Nicaragua. The Sandinistas have behaved badly. They have abdicated many of the early promises of their revolution. They are implanting an order which begins more and more to look like authoritarian, Marxist rule. The fact that some who initially fought with the Sandinistas have now joined the rebels is evidence of growing disaffection.
Washington clearly must take into account the strategic implications of a Marxist regime close to its borders. Mexico, Costa Rica, and others are also concerned about the spread of leftist influence and the potential instability of their own governments. But it is a matter of how to counter this threat, of what kind of posture to strike, and of finding the right balance of military and economic help. Here there is considerable difference of opinion and much groping for answers. But surely the United States stands to gain most by practicing the art of patient peacemaking.
In this connection, it is hard to see what can be gained by covert US aid to the rebels in Nicaragua, other than a widening of fighting. First of all, such action violates regional international law banning intervention in another state's internal affairs. Secondly, does it work? There seems to be no evidence that the rebels are managing to interdict Nicaraguan arms shipments to the Salvadorean guerrillas - the avowed purpose of the aid.
If the true aim of US policy is to bring down the Sandinista government, that is a hazardous course. Some Nicaraguans may be disenchanted with the Sandinistas, but there still seems to be wide popular support for the regime. Among the rebels, moreover, are many former supporters of Somoza, the discredited former dictator. How can the US persuade Nicaraguans that it understands their yearning for social change when it once again throws its weight behind Somocistas?
The US obviously cannot understimate the security challenge posed by leftist currents in Central America. Nor should it feel itself unable to act because of its disastrous experience in Vietnam. But, if an even wider conflict is to be avoided in Central America, the focus of US policy must be on diplomatic efforts to achieve a political solution. Washington should pursue Nicaragua's offer to talk.