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US grapples uncertainly with leftist threat in 'backyard'

World news focused on Central America this week - partly because the Pope was there and partly because the United States President in Washington was again concerned about events there.

The President was seen to be groping with difficulty for ways and means of stemming what he sees as a leftist tide threatening to open the doors to Soviet influence in the entire area, from Mexico to Panama.

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He wants urgently from the Congress an extra $110 million in military aid. And he hints that he may feel compelled to increase the number of US military trainers sent to El Salvador if Congress won't give him enough funds to bring Salvadorean troops here for training.

But to get that much extra military aid from the Congress he has to promise that the US military advisers will never be used in combat. Even with that promise there is reluctance in Congress to spend more effort trying to prop up a regime that many see as brutal, corrupt, incompetent, and unable to win battles with the help already provided.

Is this just another bottomless pit like Vietnam?

The reluctance of Congress and the uncertainty about the outcome in El Salvador are in contrast to the firmness of Moscow when it faces a comparable danger to its authority in its own neighborhood.

When Poland was trying to escape from the Soviet imperial system, there was never serious doubt about the eventual outcome. The Kremlin has no Congress with opinions of its own or public opinion worrying about morality to complicate the action. One way or another, Poland would be dragooned back into the Soviet system. It was.

Mr. Reagan has no such freedom of action. He can send aid to the existing regime in El Salvador only with the consent of the Congress, which, in turn, is influenced by public opinion. In this case there is slowness in accepting the rhetoric the President used.

For example, he said that if El Salvador should fall as a result of armed violence by the rebels in that country, ''I think that Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama, all of these, would follow.''

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Costa Rica has the most democratic and stable political condition in the area. Compared to the rest of Central America, there is negligible political discontent there. Experts on the area see little reason to think Marxism and Soviet influence would sweep over Costa Rica even if El Salvador fell.

Panama has been on easier terms with the US since the signing of the new Panama Canal treaty during the Carter years, although today there are some fresh strains in the relationship. Hondurus has a tough right-wing government, which seems to be pretty much in control of its internal problems. It is at present the stage for border raids on neighboring Nicaragua by right-wing Nicaraguan refugees being supported by the CIA.

In the end Congress will probably grant the extra aid the President wants for El Salvador, if only because it would not like being called responsible should the rightist regime there collapse, as it may.

The US seems to have more difficulty in managing situations like this than do the Soviets or older-style empires. The British put down a communist movement in Malaysia in the early days after World War II. They could do it because they had sovereignty at that time. They could run an efficient colonial administration and back it with their troops.

The US cannot set up a new and more efficient local regime in El Salvador, because El Salvador is an independent and sovereign state. For the US to intervene in its internal political structure would send a shock wave of resentment through all of Latin America.

Where the US has intervened it has had trouble with degree and timing. It probably intervened too much in Vietnam - it pulled down the Diem regime and was unable to find a satisfactory substitute afterward. It probably intervened too little and too late in Iran. Vietnam left the US system and went over to Moscow. Iran just left.

Moscow has had its imperial losses. Yugoslavia, Egypt, and China were once part of the Soviet system. They all got out. Jamaica went a long way toward Cuba and Moscow, although it was never avowedly and completely Marxist. It is now safely back on the American winter tourist circuit.

President Reagan has made so much of the danger in El Salvador that he himself is stuck with a problem for which no ready and sure solution exists. Back in the old days before World War I, an American President would send in the Marines and set up a new regime of American selection. It was done repeatedly all through Central America.

But that sort of thing is considered to be out of date. Congress would not approve.

All of which means that the Soviets, being old-fashioned in such matters, can and do maintain a firm grip on their own neighborhoods.

A president in Washington can envy the greater freedom the Kremlin has in managing such matters. But he is not supposed to do the same. As a result, Mr. Reagan may have to suffer the embarrassment of being unable to keep El Salvador inside the American system.

The end of the story is still well in the future. Right now the situation is that President Reagan is unhappy about trends in El Salvador but having trouble doing anything decisive about it.

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