WITH clear congressional support for some form of aid to the Nicaraguan contras, the United States is taking one more step down a very uncertain path. We have great difficulty in coming to terms with revolutionary regimes, whether in Iran, Cuba, or Nicaragua. A glance at the chronologies of our attempts to deal with each is instructive. Uncertain signals from this country were interpreted in the darkest terms by the new leaders of those nations.
Radical movements that overthrow regimes friendly to the United States manifest three characteristics: They see the US as their primary enemy. They assume the US will try to reverse their revolution. They are, therefore, deeply suspicious of our moves and our statements. They frequently have only the most rudimentary and, often, erroneous idea of the workings of this country and its institutions.
Revolutionary regimes also have internal divisions. More moderate and sophisticated elements may be initially out in front and profess a different idea of the ultimate goal of the revolution than those fighting in the hills. Upon achieving victory, those with the guns emerge and seize the upper hand. They are often the ones with the deepest suspicions, ready to believe the worst, and intolerant of those who would appear to come to terms with the enemies of the revolution.
Seen from the perspective of these leaders, our policies -- at best, ambiguous and, at worst, threatening -- can easily be exploited to gain allies, seek aid, and rally the population.
In the case of Nicaragua, the US did, at the outset, offer aid to the new Sandinista regime. But that aid was offered against the background of a protracted and sometimes acrimonious debate in the US press and in Congress over the nature of the new regime and the future of our relations. The offer could not have been seen in Managua as an unequivocal expression of US friendship. Much of the rhetoric of the US debate served only to reinforce the suspicions of the Sandinista leaders.
Deep differences of view among Americans regarding revolutions are, perhaps, inevitable. In countries where we have been influential and revolutions have occurred, the situation, like the mouse and the elephant, will be seen from many different perspectives. Americans will tend to view developments through prior links. Some have been close to the officials who are now overthrown and in exile; others will have been with radicals, with the poor. Sympathy or antagonism springs from the associations each person has had in pre-revolutionary days. Each suggests a different prospect for friendship or reversal.
In such circumstances, each of the three current prescriptions for dealing with the Sandinistas is unrealistic.
Direct efforts to convince the Sandinista leaders of our desire for good relations are not likely to win support in the US or a positive response from Managua.
Efforts to pressure the Sandinistas into negotiations with the contras are not likely to be any more successful. Those who have committed their lives to the success of the revolution will see such negotiations as a threat and exploit them accordingly.
Direct US military involvement, obviously favored by some in the current debate, would risk a deep division in the United States and a strong and adverse regional reaction.
As difficult as it may be for us to consider, there is a fourth alternative. Set aside the internal structure of Nicaragua as an issue. Concentrate on the external activities of the new regime. Make a clear statement that we will not involve ourselves in the internal affairs of Nicaragua but will take ``appropriate steps'' to support friendly regimes on its borders and to prevent the establishment of Soviet military bases in that country. This would be understood in Managua, would win wider support in Latin America, and would create a broader consensus for Central American policy in our own country.
As much as we may wish to see the spread of democratic institutions in Latin America, our preoccupation with the internal structure of doctrinaire revolutionary regimes gives them the basis for rallying popular support and pressing US adversaries for increases in aid. Given the limitations on our capacity to change the regime, we now have the worst of all worlds. Moving the debate to the international rather than the internal aspects could place the issue on a sounder, more manageable, base.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.