The posture that the Reagan administration is taking toward the political crisis in El Salvador may be setting the course for contending with the threat of the Soviet Union and Cuba in the third world. We are entitled to ask some questions. How do we understand the nature of the contest with the Soviet Union/Cuba? What kind of priorities are we establishing for our Central American policy?
As well as one can piece it together, the Carter administration looked at El Salvador and US policy options there roughly as follows:
El Salvador has entered a fundamentally revolutionary situation. The semifeudal, autocratic political system based on the power of a privileged land-holding class is confronting a deep-rooted challenge from other elements of society demanding basic changes in the system: a more equitable distribution of the national product and expansion of the political rights of the hitherto dispossessed.
Out of the disorder and violence of the past few years there have emerged three political forces in the country: (1) The extremist right determined to use whatever brutal methods necessary to restore the old system of privilege and poverty; (2) the extreme left dedicated to the physical as well as the political extermination of the old ruling class and, in part at least, prepared to replace it with the dictatorial system of rule now extant in Castro's Cuba; and (3) a middle political force now controlling the junta government which is seeking to curtail the unbridled violence the two extreme movements are carrying on against each other, the government itself, and the unarmed members of the society.
The junta government is torn between sympathies for the two extreme positions , is faced with enormous difficulties in restoring and maintaining even a modicum of social order, and is halting and indecisive in articulating a political program capable of commanding widespread popular support. The junta's hold on the reins of power and the loyalty of the armed forces seems tenuous as does its capacity to broaden its support among the people.
In this muddled and murky situation the Carter administration was charting a careful and tentative course. The US would not back the extreme right or the extreme left as neither promised to be a friendly and durable associate of the US. We would give the junta government our support, including arms, but not unconditionally. We would go with it as long as we concluded that it was instituting the long-needed reforms which stood a chance of accruing popular support. The junta government had to defeat the extreme left by drawing away its popular support through a commitment to political and economic reforms; it could not do so by resort to force alone. An overemphasis on repression would drive the junta into the arms of the extreme right. And, if that seemed to be happening, then there was no way to "save El Salvador" and we would wash our hands of El Salvador and carry on our fight elsewhere and in other ways in Central America.
The Reagan administration now appears embarked on a different course. Its spokesman tells us "a sitting government has been challenged by an insurgency supported from outside, specifically by Cuba, through large-scale smuggling of arms." As Senator Percy has said, "those outside forces should be on notice that this nation will do whatever is necessary to prevent a communist takeover." We will provide "whatever is necessary" in arms aid and (again the administration spokesman) "there are now no such conditions" as the Carter administration posed. In short, we now view the situation definitively as a military contest whose outcome will be decided by military means and to which we are unequivocally committed because of "the precedent that would be set if we did not act."
With that kind of US perception and that kind of US commitment, we begin the process of throwing away our leverage on the shaky junta government. Predictably, with assured and unconditional US backing and under the pressure of leftist violence two things are likely to happen to "the government": fighting the leftists becomes its raison d'etre and it slides toward the arms of the rightist extremists whose brutality and excesses are excused as necessary; its disposition for difficult reforms, tentative at best, is no longer stiffened by any "linkage" from the Reagan administration; it slackens the reform efforts and becomes a highly repressive rightist government itself trying to put down the leftists to whom most people then turn as the only "reformers" in the game.
If that sounds like Vietnam played over, so what? So the administration's already difficult task of building national consensus behind an intelligible Soviet policy is complicated further. There will be no consensus for supporting corrupt, venal and manifestly repressive regimes bent on stifling broadly supported popular movements -- and probably doomed to destruction in tomorrow's revolution.
So US Ambassador Lawrence Eagleburger's explanatory tour to NATO capitals proved to be difficult indeed. NATO allies, truly important to US security, tend to say, "The Americans have learned nothing from Vietnam." They will not follow our lead into another folly but will have to chart their own course, even if it distances them from Washington.
Finally, what does the designation of Elsalvador as them test case of our Central American policy say about our priorities? Do we not understand that in 10 years our relations with Mexico, by quantum margins the most important of Central American countries, will be either very good or very bad? There is where our position and influence in Central America will be determined. If we are close to Mexico, what happens elsewhere in Central America will be both positively influenced and much less relevant to our destiny.
And, let us be clear. We are now embarking on a course of policy and action in El Salvador with which Mexico will take violent exception and on which Mexico will be stubbornly opposing us. Would it not be better to seek ways to work with Mexico and other Latin American countries to exhibit the outside introduction of arms into El Salvador? But, of course, if others are to go that route with us, they will want to be sure that we are also clearly committed to far-reaching refo rmes in El Salvador.