The only means by which the war in El Salvador can be brought to a peaceful resolution in the foreseeable future is through a negotiated resolution of the conflict. The continuation of the Reagan administration's current policy of providing high levels of military assistance for El Salvador while supporting an electoral process on terms which are clearly unacceptable to the opposition is doomed to failure.
Yet, without the participation of the opposition, the upcoming elections are no more likely to end the war than did the highly touted constituent assembly elections in March of 1982. Nor is there a shred of evidence that the quarter of a billion dollars of military assistance the US already has provided has even inched the Salvadorean government closer to a military victory.
There are, to be sure, good reasons to be skeptical about the willingness of battle- hardened Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups to accept a political solution predicated upon free and fair elections. There can be little doubt that what the guerrillas want is political power, not parliamentary democracy. Yet there are several reasons to believe the opposition forces may be willing to agree to a cease fire in the context of an acceptable political settlement, and it would be a serious mistake to rule it out completely.
First, the opposition believes that it has support among the Salvadorean people and stands to do well in a genuinely honest election. In this sense, even if the guerrillas don't ''win'' the election they may feel they would be in a better position to compete for power over the long run through an electoral process than through a continuation of the armed struggle. Second, and perhaps more important, they are firmly convinced that, even if they were on the verge of a military victory, the US would militarily intervene in order to prevent it. Third, given the rate at which the country is being physically destroyed by the civil war, there must be a question in their minds about what a victory would be worth if the war continues much longer.
From the Salvadorean government's point of view, there are also advantages to a political resolution of the conflict. To the extent that the government believes it enjoys the support of a majority of the people, it has nothing to fear from a negotiating process that leads to elections. Furthermore, a political settlement will end an increasingly brutal and destructive war which the government is most unlikely to win but which it could quite conceivably lose.
The US also has a very real interest in a political settlement. It would enable us to avoid the Hobson's choice of either permitting the Salvadorean government to fall or sending combat troops in to prop it up, should the military situation continue to deteriorate. And from the point of view of promoting democracy, which is one of the primary justifications for US Salvadorean policy, a political solution would be far preferable to a military victory by either side.
Given the history of El Salvador, there is little reason to believe that, if the Salvadorean government achieves a military victory, the security forces would respect the democratic process in whose name they had fought. Indeed, in the context of a military triumph over the guerrillas, they are far more likely to revert to the repressive policies of the past, in which the military ruled without regard to the requirements of democracy, than they are to accept a government based on the principles of political pluralism and civilian supremacy.
Similarly, if the guerrillas come to power by means of a military victory, the prospects for political pluralism would be virtually non-existent. The moderates in the opposition - people like Guillermo Ungo and Ruben Zamora - can be expected to play a central role in any political resolution of the conflict, but they would inevitably be cast aside in the context of a military victory. Power, after all, does tend to come out of the barrel of a gun in revolutionary situations.
If a political settlement is in the interests of the Salvadorean government, the guerrillas, and the US, what is the impediment to a solution? The key problem so far has been getting the negotiating process started.
The Salvadorean government and the administration believe that any negotiations should be limited strictly to the conduct of the forthcoming elections. They view the guerrillas' insistence on unconditional negotiations leading to a temporary power sharing arrangement prior to an election as a thinly veiled formula for the emergence of a communist government.
It is difficult to justify the proposition that acceptance of unconditional negotiations would be tantamount to letting the opposition ''shoot its way into power.'' At such negotiations, each side would be free to put forward its own proposals. Neither side would be obligated to accept the other side's proposals. Presumably, each side would reject the other's opening proposals, and the process of hard bargaining would then begin.
The guerrillas contend that they are willing to abide by the results of honest elections, even if such elections do not result in a victory for their position. But they insist that the only way they can be sure that the elections will indeed be genuine and free of coercion is if there is an interim power sharing arrangement in which the opposition is given a measure of responsibility for the conduct of the elections. In view of the recent history of El Salvador, in which thousands of perceived opponents of the government have been murdered by right-wing death squads associated with the security forces, the reluctance of the guerrillas to participate in elections conducted solely under the auspices of the Salvadorean government is understandable.
In order for negotiations to have any prospects for success, some way must be found to address the guerrillas' legitimate concerns. If the Salvadorean government continues to reject, as is its right, the guerrillas' proposal to resolve the problem by means of a temporary power-sharing arrangement, it is incumbent upon it to put forward a credible alternative.
Otherwise, there is no possibility of an agreement which would lead to an end of the conflict and shift in the struggle for power from battlefield to ballot-box. One option: a Zimbabwean-type solution, where the Salvadorean Armed Forces would be confined to barracks, the guerrillas would remain in their bases , and a mutually acceptable regional or international peacekeeping force would be used to ensure the security of all parties during the election campaign.
There is no guarantee, even if negotiations are initiated, that they will reach a successful conclusion. But the alternative - no negotiations and a continuation of the war - is even less likely to end the current slaughter or to result in the establishment of a democratic government. The US, therefore, has little to lose and everything to gain by placing itself on the side of unconditional negotiations. In the final analysis, such a policy may represent El Salvador's last chance for peace.