Tug of war on US Salvador policy
The national debate over the Reagan administration's policy in El Salvador is escalating. Yet despite a well-organized opposition, the overall mood in the Congress and the country is such that both are expected to acquiesce in what President Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig are proposing for El Salvador.Skip to next paragraph
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As the debate heats up, leftist guerrillas began a new offensive against the military-civilian junta governing El Salvador. At issue is the question: Could El Salvador turn into another Vietnam?
President Reagan rejects the parallel. "The situation [in El Salvador] is, you might say, our front yard. . . . I think the situation is entirely different," he said at his March 6 news conference. "We do not foresee the need of American troops. . . . We're sending some 50-odd personnel for training. . . . We have such training squads in more than 30 countries today."
But, at almost the same time, Sen. Edward Kennedy was announcing that he and Sen. Paul Tsongas would be introducing legislation to recall the 50 or so US military advisers now in or on their way to El Salvador and to halt the planned administration meets certain conditions. Similar legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives last month by Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts.
In addition, a considerable body of US opinion within the churches (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) and organized labor seems to be against the Reagan administration's El Salvador policy. The feeling in these quarters is all the greater because of the murder of American nuns and trade- union representatives in El Salvador -- allegedly on orders by Salvadoran security forces. "US guns kill US nuns" was one of the signs carried in a protest demonstration in Los Angeles last week.
Church groups are lobbying actively on Capitol Hill against US military aid to El Salvador. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, the Rt. Rev. Msgr. James Hickey, has testified before a congressional subcommittee in the same direction.
Yet the mood in Congress and country still seems supportive of the administration.
Mr. Reagan's victory in the presidential election was due in part to public backing for the tougher line toward the Soviet Union and its surrogates he proposed. In other words, Americans seemed to be emerging from nearly a decade of passivity in foreign policy induced by the trauma of Vietnam. Consequently there is a certain irony that the Reagan administration's choice of El Salvador as the first place to be tough toward the Russians and the Cubans should stir anxiety about the US heading straight back to another Vietnam.
What worries Mr. Reagan's critics is that they see the sending of the US military advisers and initial installment of military aid to El Salvador as a repetition of the first undramatic US initiatives that led to later deep involvement in Vietnam. To the critics, another parallel (vigorously disputed by the administration) is that, as in Vietnam, US help is going to right-wingers ruthlessly contemptuous of local popular opinion and incapable of ever winning its support. The US, the critics charge, is once again making the mistake of using military means to deal with a problem for which the only effective solution is political.
The administration's retort to this is that there is, indeed, a political as well as a military level to the challenge in El Salvador. If the impression has grown that President Reagan and Secretary Haig were solely preoccupied with meeting the military threat from the left, administration spokesmen say it is because the situation in the wake of the leftist military offensive in early January was so precarious that crash action had to be taken to deal with it.