Arnson, a Washington-based expert on Central America, sets the standard of scholarship for studies of US politics and this country involvement in El Savador and Nicaragua during the Reagan years. The focus here is on Reagan and Congress and their cross purposes in the shaping of Central American foreign policy. In the 1980's, Central America witnessed the convergence of powerful, vastly different policy-making forces. The resulting conflicts continually undermined the goal of achieving a bipartisan, unified strategy for the area. One policy-making group was Reagan and his Republicans, who had clear, forceful goals of reasserting American power again after Vietnam and of not allowing a Western hemisphere nation to tall to communism. Congress, on the other hand, was generally more obedient to majority public opinion and thus more wary of the US being dragged into another Vietnam. The largely untenable compromise was a doubting Congress' will to use what Arnson terms ""limited means"" (military aid but no direct armed intervention) to achieve ""limited Reagan administration ends."" In El Salvador, US policy was more united in ""defending a post-coup status quo against a revolutionary challenge."" In Nicaragua, however, Congress wanted contra pressure to force Sandinista reform, and it was at bitter odds with the President, who was suspected of wanting the same contra force to overthrow a foreign government. The Iran-contra affair shifted the initiative in Central American policy-making from the executive to the legislature--the result being the ""viable-looking"" Arias peace plan and the curtailing of most contra aid. ""The Reagan administration,"" Arnson concludes, ""sacrificed on the altar of zeal what it could not obtain in the crucible of compromise."" In the end, we were left with a ""self-defeating foreign policy."" The search for a consensus on post-Vietnam foreign policy remained illusive. Arnson makes a strong case for Congress having a legitimate role in the making of foreign policy, especially as a necessary restraint on adventurism in the President--a lesson that looms foremost in this essential book.