In one of its first foreign policy tests, the Reagan administration is drawing a line in the sand against the Soviets and Cubans in El Salvador. Secretary of State Alexander Haig thinks he has enough evidence that Cuba is heavily involved in supplying weapons to the Salvadoran insurgents that this is the place to say "no more" to the Cubans and their Soviet supporters.
In an apparent effort to provide the rationale for increased military aid to the Salvadoran junta, the administration is planning to send emissaries to the Western Europeans and Latin America to explain its case against Cuba. The Soviets, meanwhile, have taken the unusual step of denying, through their embassy in Washington, any involvement in arms shipments to El Salvador.
The Reagan administration's toughening policy in El Salvador fits with its determination to emphasize the East-West factor in foreign relations more than the Carter administration did. In its inclination to sell Saudi Arabia additional equipment for the Saudis' F-15 fighter planes, for example, the administration is emphasizing the East- West factor more than local factors. Administration officials see a need to strengthen the Saudis against the Soviets and their friends in the Middle East. At the same time, they seem to be placing less emphasis on the Palestinian factor and a negotiated solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict than the Carter administration did.
In El Salvador, Carter administration officials tended to focus on the gross injustices and inequalities that pervade that Central American nation's social system. These were seen as chief causes for the insurgency. Cuban arms were not viewed as a decisive factor until the administration's last days. State Department officials pointed out that with money gathered from numerous kidnappings, the Salvadoran guerrillas had no need to obtain weapons from the Cubans. They could buy whatever they wanted in the international arms market.
The Reagan administration has apparently not yet decided how far it will go in providing increased military aid to El Salvador, a small, overcrowded nation of 4.5 million people. The most difficult and controversial question is that of sending American military men there to provide the Salvadorans with advice and training.
Just before he left office, Carter already had decided to send "lethal" military equipment to El Salvador. The $5 million aid package was to include, among other things, grenades, grenade launchers, and small arms ammunition. Four helicopters were to be leased to El Salvador.
What seems clear is that the Reagan administration intends to go beyond the Carter package and that this will trigger protests from liberal human rights organizations in this country that are concerned with Latin America.
In Congress, too, there are some doubts about the wisdom of the tougher policy now being developed. Some Senate specialists still doubt that the evidence of Cuban involvement is overwhelming. In the House of Representatives, three members who recently visited Central America are arguing that increased military aid to El Salvador will further "polarize" the situation there between the right and left. The three -- Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D) of Massachusetts, Rep. Robert W. Edgar (D) of Pennsylvania, and Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Maryland -- are convinced that the US-backed Salvadoran Army is waging a systematic "campaign of terrorism" against villagers.
The three legislators also believe that no serious investigation has been conducted by the El Salvador government into the killing of four American religious workers in that country late last year. They cite comments from Robert White, the former US ambassador to El Salvador, that no investigation worthy of the name was undertaken. The Carter administration suspended military and economic aid to El Salvador at the time of the killings and then renewed it only after announcing it had been assured that a serious investigation was under way.
Reagan administration officials say it would be a mistake to conclude that they are not interested, in an investigation. But they point out that, in keeping with a new policy of not publicly emphasizing human rights issues when it comes to governments friendly to the United States, they are pushing for a genuine investigation through quiet diplomacy.
At the same time, the Reagan administration is pursuing a policy of more pointed pressure on El Salvador's neighbor, Nicaragua. The administration suspended continuation of a $75 million aid program to Nicaragua on the grounds that Cuban arms to El Salvador were being shipped through Nicaraguan territory. The Nicaraguan government denies any involvement in shipping such weapons and there is evidence that it now is pushing for a political, rather than military, solution in El Salvador.
"The problem is that some Nicaraguan officials are getting the point, but some may not be getting it," says one State Department official.