When Gov. Norm Bangerter visits Honduras next week he won't visit Contra rebels, but he will see a political battleground.
The battle is over who has control of a state National Guard's peacetime training, and whether a governor can keep the Pentagon from assigning Guard troops overseas for routine training. The Pentagon has had the upper hand since Congress passed the Montgomery amendment in 1986, limiting a governor's veto power over Pentagon call-ups of state Guard troops.Utah Army National Guard troops are currently in Honduras along with Army Reserve and active-duty Army personnel, working on a road-building project that has been going on for three years and is expected to take two to three more years to finish.
The soldiers maintain the only U.S. military presence in the country that borders war-torn Nicaragua and is the home base for the Contra rebels.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis has been at the forefront of the debate over state/federal control of National Guard units. His opinions about foreign policy were widely disseminated during the 1988 presidential campaign, and they differ from those of Utah Adjutant Gen. John L. Matthews.
"The authority for training the militia is reserved to the states," said Doug Wilkins, an attorney with the Massachusetts attorney general's office. "Supreme Court authority says the National Guard is the state militia," he said. "We think (Congress) is reading the militia clause out of the Constitution."
"Massachusetts is among the states that have challenged the constitutionality of the Montgomery amendment in court," said Dukakis' spokesman James Dorsey.
A similar suit was filed by Minnesota, which lost at the federal district court level but won in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed on both sides of the suits by a number of other states. "They keep shifting sides. Ohio, Vermont and Maine are consistently on our side. A number of states are on the other side," including Utah, he said.
Dukakis believes National Guard troops are being used as instruments of foreign policy. "During the campaign (Dukakis) stated that we ought to work with allies in the hemisphere to promote peace in the region, following first and foremost the Arias plan," Dorsey said, referring to the Central America peace plan devised by Costa Rica's President, Oscar Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize that year for his efforts.
"We should not be sending National Guard troops into Honduras to build roads and airstrips . . . Dukakis has a position against this kind of involvement."
Matthews' perspective is different.
"The military down there is being used for nation building," he said.
In Central America, the military is often a symbol of dictatorship and control. Because National Guard soldiers serve in the military only part-time, they can convey an image about citizen soldiers that help serve the community, rather than just rule over it, Matthews said.
"A message is sent to those countries that they should do the same thing" and develop their military forces into a source of civil service.
"The military can be an asset to a nation instead of a taskmaster over it," Matthews said. "But they have to see the different way to operate."
The second U.S. goal is to show that democracy can improve daily life. The potential for civil conflict in Honduras is relatively low, Matthews said, but opportunities for communist influence are high because of widespread poverty.
Matthews also recognizes that the political battle lines in the United States are drawn, and that criticism will continue as long as American troops continue their deployments in Central America.