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US Area Policy Termed Unfocused


WHEN George Bush spends 26 hours in Costa Rica next week with heads of state from all over Latin America, few expect to hear anything but friendly generalities. Mr. Bush and his advisers show little of the strong interest in Latin America that was so bitterly divisive in the Reagan administration.

Latin America policy experts of various political leanings credit this same lack of interest for the murkiness surrounding the US response to the coup attempt in Panama early this month.

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In this view, the White House actions during the failed coup were part of a pattern of ambivalence or sheer inattention toward the region.

During his first months in office, Bush succeeded in shifting the terms of the three Central American issues most divisive in United States politics:

Secretary of State James Baker III crafted a bipartisan accord for continuing only nonmilitary support of the Nicaraguan contras. For the first time in at least eight years, Nicaragua virtually disappeared from US politics.

Bush applauded a peace proposal from left-wing rebels in El Salvador opening the possibility of negotiated peace.

He handed the leading role in opposing Panama's Manuel Noriega to the Organization of American States, reducing the stigma of Yankee high-handedness.

But once these moves had calmed the waters of Congress, the administration has showed no clear sense of what outcomes it seeks.

``An ambivalent administration creating an ambiguous policy,'' Peter Hakim of the InterAmerican Dialogue, a US think tank, calls it.

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``This administration wants Latin America not to be on the front burner,'' says Curtin Winsor, ambassador to Costa Rica from 1983 to '85.

Mr. Winsor believes the lack of White House interest in the region is one cause of a lack of a clear and assertive plan during the Panama coup attempt.

This, says Mark Rosenberg of Florida International University, sends a message to Central Americans: ``The US doesn't really think through its policies on Central America because it doesn't have the attention span.''

The administration's own review of how it handled the coup attempt found only narrow, procedural problems. The president and his top aides received full information on unfolding events, but agencies did not share information well between them and had conflicting accounts.

The White House will now use a committee of the deputies from the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, Pentagon, and Joint Chiefs of Staff to coordinate crisis management.

The administration has also emerged from the recriminations surrounding the coup with an interest in rethinking the 13-year-old presidential ban on any US participation in assassination.

Central Intelligence Director William Webster called on the president and Congress this week to soften the ban to allow some forms of support for coups that are potentially violent.

The White House endorsed Mr. Webster's views. In Congress, however, members of the intelligence committees said the administration was shifting blame to the ban by interpreting it too broadly.

US officials could have legally supported this coup attempt because it was a peaceful coup from the beginning, says Senate Intelligence Committee press secretary James Currie.

Mr. Currie spent last week in Panama, and believes that ``there was no intelligence failure whatsoever'' surrounding the coup.

Anonymous senior officials in the Bush administration are using allegations of weak intelligence regarding the coup to promote the ouster of Mr. Webster.

Perhaps the most widespread criticism of the handling of the coup was that it showed lack of clear contingency planning by the US, even though President Bush has called for the Panamanian Defense Forces to launch a coup against Noriega.

The White House position is that the coup leaders never asked for help beyond the blocking of two roads, so plans to get concessions from them in return were moot.

Even many of the critics, however, still think Bush made the right decision in not stepping outside established international agreements to support this particular coup attempt. ``There were a lot of reasons not to get involved in this particular coup,'' says Ambler Moss, ambassador to Panama until 1982 and now at the University of Miami.

His reasons: The coup leader was unlikely to be a new convert to democratic values, he was unlikely to turn Noriega over to the US, and his planning was poor. ``Democracy was not their agenda at all.''

Noriega, he adds, is now weaker than ever, devoured with suspicion and arresting even his top aides. ``The guy is going absolutely hysterical right now.''

Panamanians have learned something, too, he says. No one any longer believes Noriega will leave according to the traditional script for Panamanian coups - a brief house arrest followed by a quiet retirement to the country.

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