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An exit door for US involvement in Nicaragua?

NOW that Congress has virtually approved the President's request for $100 million in military and logistical aid for the contras, the United States will soon be far more deeply immersed in a war against Nicaragua. It is not too early to begin thinking about how the US can get out. Some supporters of the contra insurgency are counting on the downfall of the Sandinista regime to end US military involvement in Central America. This outcome is certainly not impossible, but it is unlikely -- particularly anytime soon. Henry Kissinger (Washington Post, April 13) echoed the views of knowledgeable observers in concluding that it would indeed be impossible to overthrow the Sandinista regime ``without direct US military intervention.''

If the US chooses to pursue military victory, it should be prepared to sustain a war for many years to come -- and to accept the immense political, financial, and psychological costs that such a war would bring to this country.

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Protracted warfare would, of course, be far more devastating to the Nicaraguan people. Other countries in Central America would not be spared. The fighting would spill over international borders. Scarce resources urgently needed for economic development would be diverted to military uses; new investments would not be made; tourists would continue to stay away; and refugees would add to economic and social burdens. Politics in every country of the region would become more polarized, and incipient democratic rule would be endangered.

The longer the war goes on, the greater the prospects of direct US military intervention. The sending of US troops to fight in Central America would be bitterly divisive for our own domestic politics and strain our relations with most other Latin countries.

The US cannot afford to depend exclusively on a quick contra victory to provide it with a way out of Central America. The risks are too great and the costs of failure too high. Negotiations must also be pursued vigorously. Even as Washington prepares for war, it should begin to negotiate for peace.

What will it take to negotiate a solution? The first step is to sit down with the adversary. The US must be willing to resume direct bilateral talks with Nicaragua. This Washington has so far refused to do until the Sandinistas agree to open discussions with the contras. Sticking to this position will only delay indefinitely the start of both sets of negotiations. The Sandinistas have repeatedly refused to negotiate with the contras; there is no reason to believe that they will reverse course soon. Discussions between the Sandinistas and the contras would be desirable, and at some point absolutely necessary, for achieving peace in Nicaragua. But these discussions should be an objective of US-Nicaraguan negotiations, not a precondition for them.

And there are other objectives that the US should be pursuing in negotiations with Nicaragua: the loosening of Nicaragua's ties to the Soviet Union and Cuba; withdrawing military advisers and reducing arms acquisitions from the Soviet bloc; limiting the size of the Sandinista army; ending Nicaraguan support for guerrilla movements; and easing of government repression in Nicaragua. The US should be pressing for resolution of these critical issues.

Agreement will not be easily achieved, but face-to-face talks should help to clarify positions on both sides, perhaps gradually opening the way toward real compromise and accommodation. Moreover, by sitting down with Nicaragua, the US would convey a message of support for the peace efforts of the Contadora nations. For the past year these nations have repeatedly urged Washington to resume bilateral discussions with Managua.

If the US is serious about negotiations, then it must work closely with the Contadora nations and their South American support group. Despite its frustrating inability to gain agreement among the Central American republics, the Contadora process has made progress and remains the best hope for a regional peace accord. It would also provide a multilateral mechanism to carry out, monitor, and verify compliance with the provisions of a peace accord.

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Although the US would not be a formal signatory to a Contadora treaty, its commitment is essential to making the process work. Nicaragua has made clear its objections to the proposed treaty. The US should make its objections known as well and then strive to hammer out an acceptable package with the Contadora nations. Differences with Nicaragua would be the subject of continuing negotiation.

The most critical decision for the US government is whether it is willing to accept the continued existence of the Sandinista government. Negotiations will not succeed if the US insists from the outset that the Sandinistas yield power.

Negotiations would have the greatest chance of success if the US focused its demands on matters vital to its own security and that of other Central American countries. The US might also be able to exact political concessions: an end to Nicaragua's state of emergency, a lifting of restrictions on freedom of the press and association, discontinuation of arbitrary arrests and other human rights abuses, a halt to the Sandinistas' confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church, and the beginning of real dialogue with the full range of opposition, including the contras. What the US cannot expect is for the Sandinistas to agree to dismantle their government. No government will negotiate away its own existence.

Washington should be making every effort to create conditions for serious negotiations. A negotiated peace is the best (perhaps the only) way for the US to end its involvement in an escalating military conflict with Nicaragua. The US would be smart to start working toward it now.

Peter Hakim is staff director of the Inter-American Dialogue.

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