IS there really a new consensus in Washington with respect to Central America and what to do about it? Spokesmen for the Reagan administration insist that there is, and as proof point to what they see as growing agreement on Capitol Hill that the Sandinistas are taking Nicaragua toward Marxism-Leninism, that Nicaragua should not become a Soviet base, and that any assistance the Sandinistas may be giving to the Salvadorean guerrillas ought to be stopped. In fact, there is broad agreement on those points, but the agreement isn't new. The debate has never been over whether or not the Sandinistas were Marxists or even if they were nice fellows or not. The overwhelming majority of those who strongly disagree with the administration's policy have all along recognized that Managua has a closer relationship with Moscow and Havana than the United States can be comfortable with, that the Sandinistas have been guilty of human rights violations, and that they are not democrats. In short, they represent a problem with which the US must deal. Up to that point, there is broad agreement -- and always has been. The disagreement comes over how best to deal with the problem.
The administration insists that we must keep the pressure on the Sandinistas by helping the ``contras,'' but it cannot point to a single way in which helping them has improved the situation. It concedes that there are more Soviet and Cuban military personnel in Nicaragua now than before the contra operation began, and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams has recently charged that those personnel are participating in combat. On that score the contra war has resulted in the opposite of what we would have wanted: in a greater Soviet-Cuban problem rather than in a reduced one. It has also resulted in a larger Nicaraguan Army, not a smaller one.
Given the paucity of evidence presented by the administration, it is difficult to judge independently whether the alleged arms flow from Nicaragua to El Salvador has increased, or even continues. The administration insists that it continues unabated. If so, clearly contra pressure has been ineffective on that score as well.
Certainly there has been no progress in terms of opening up the internal process, nor should we have expected any. A long-accepted rule of international politics is that you do not bring about internal liberalization by mounting an external military threat. The result is almost always the exact opposite, and so has it been in the Nicaraguan case. The Sandinistas are less open to internal dialogue now than a year ago, and much less open than two years ago. They have recently imposed a state of siege and cracked down more vigorously on opposition newspapers and radio stations, something the administration has, as it should have, roundly condemned. The implications are clear: In terms of pluralism and internal liberalization, contra pressures have helped not a whit. If anything, they have made things worse.
The administration's weakest argument for aiding the contras has to do with negotiations. If there are today sharper divisions on Capitol Hill over Central American policy, it is because many congressmen now realize the administration misled them. Not surprisingly, they bitterly resent it. Before the vote on contra aid last June, the administration struck a reasonable posture. In a letter to the Senate, President Reagan said he would resume bilateral talks with the Sandinistas. He followed with a letter to Rep. Dave McCurdy (D) of Oklahoma promising to pursue diplomatic rather than military solutions -- if Congress would aid the contras. The reason for the aid, he insisted, was to keep the pressure on the Sandinistas to negotiate.
But once Congress had approved ``nonlethal'' aid to the contras, all these promises were ignored. Though the President had said in April that he would resume talks with the Sandinistas, in July when the foreign ministers of the Contadora countries called on us to do just that, the administration flatly and immediately refused (although the Sandinistas had already accepted). And in August, Mr. Abrams wrote finis to the possibility of diplomatic solutions by describing the very idea of a negotiated agreement with the Sandinistas as ``preposterous.''
We could achieve our objectives through diplomacy -- all objectives, that is, save the ouster of the Sandin- istas. But it is now clear that that is the only thing the administration would be willing to negotiate -- i.e., the terms of the Sandinistas' capitulation. Capitulate they never will; hence, diplomatic solutions are at this point pretty well ruled out.
As funding the contras advances none of our other objectives, and as everyone acknowledges that the contras do not have the capability to defeat the Sandinistas, it is difficult to see just what we are accomplishing. Rather than offering some hope for a way out of the Central American imbroglio, supporting the contras simply carries us further into a blind alley leading to the involvement of US troops. Congress authorized the nonlethal aid to the contras last summer, but it has accomplished nothing, so now the administration wants to give them outright military aid. When that also fails, it will ask for more, and more, until finally it is forced to admit that the contras by themselves cannot win for us, that if we want to oust the Sandinistas, we will have to use US forces.
Our only hope of averting another Vietnam-like situation is that a majority of congressmen will refuse to authorize military aid for the contras and insist that the administration honor its earlier promises to the Congress to seek diplomatic rather than military solutions.
Supporters of the administration's Central American policy would have us believe that anyone who opposes that policy is now outside the mainstream. My own perception is that there are more people outside that ``mainstream'' than in it. But even if that were not the case, even if there were only a handful of critics left, I would prefer to be one of them. Those who asked aloud, just before the vote on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, whether our destroyers had really been under attack were on that particular morning very much outside the mainstream. They also happened to be right.
Wayne S. Smith, former chief of the US interest section in Havana, is adjunct professor of Latin American studies at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.