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Helping insurgencies: the real questions

AS Congress returns today from its Memorial Day recess, it will be giving further consideration to aid to insurgencies in Nicaragua and Kampuchea. Embarrassed by the poor timing of the Ortega visit to Moscow, many members now seem more willing to provide some form of aid to the contras of Nicaragua. Legislation providing help to the noncommunist insurgencies in Kampuchea is already on the way. Clearly there are those who would also like to see United States help for guerrilla forces in Angola and Ethiopia.

The debate on such issues proceeds at the level of rhetoric, rather than reality. Basic issues are obscured by the liberal use of terms such as ``freedom fighters'' and ``democrats.'' In neither Nicaragua nor Kampuchea have the forces Washington supports demonstrated a strong allegiance to the principles of Jeffersonian democracy or dedication to constitutional government. Let us be frank. We want to support these forces because they seem prepared to oppose, with arms, a regime or a movement that appears to be a surrogate of the Soviets.

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In our global confrontation with the Soviets, this may be enough. Nevertheless, in this often emotional and oversimplified debate, we owe it to ourselves to ask some fundamental questions:

What do we hope to achieve? The insurgents clearly have as their objective to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and to drive the Vietnamese from Kampuchea. If these results are not possible within the foreseeable future, do we then hope that the pressure we have helped to mount will force the Sandinistas and the Vietnamese to negotiate the establishment of democratic regimes in Managua and Phnom Penh? If neither set of objectives is realistic, are we satisfied merely to create nuisances for the current regimes?

What do we know of our partners? The rhetoric of our insurgent allies is designed to emphasize their love of democracy, their strength, and their possibilities of victory. Those are the themes that they believe will bring support from the United States. Are we taking a closer look at their strengths and true objectives, or are we, as we have at times in the past, succumbing to the persuasive approaches of articulate English-speaking representatives who say all the right things? Even if we assume their democratic credentials are unassailable, what do we know of the unity of the movement, of the long-range possibilities for harmony within the ranks?

What do they expect of us? If we do commit ourselves as a nation to support their cause, do they expect us to stay the course, whatever it may be? Do those who say they need only modest help today really mean that, or is that their way of getting us involved?

How far are we prepared to go? If our initial aid is not enough, leaders of these movements and their ardent supporters will almost certainly be back for more. There are few who believe that the insurgents in either Nicaragua or Kampuchea have the possibility of prevailing at their present strength. When this is apparent, do we raise the ante? Will we ultimately need to use our own forces to help them prevail? Or, if we are not prepared to recognize our limitations now, will we, at a greater cost to them and to us, do so later?

And what of the Soviets? If our objective in bilateral discussions with the USSR is to modify their behaviour in the third world, how do we respond if they offer to curtail their support for insurgencies if we will do the same? Do we sacrifice those we have encouraged to fight to reach a wider understanding with the Russians?

There are those who say we do not need to answer these questions, that a great nation, to show itself strong, must support its friends. But the lives at stake are not, today, North American. We do our friends no service if our help is inconsistent, restrained, and uncertain.

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We cannot, in our system and society, effectively disguise our help for insurgent movements. Some feel we are now, in fact, at war with the Soviet Union; to them the third-world areas are the only possible battlefield in a nuclear age. Even for those who do not see it this way, it is difficult and unpopular to turn away those who seem to be fighting communist aggression. Yet, if the American people are to support aid of whatever nature to insurgency movements, they deserve to know where such aid will lead. It is not clear at all, in the case of proposals on Nicaragua and Kampuchea, that anyone can answer.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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