The President Reagan received, or should have received, a reminder the other day of how-careful a president has to be in choosing his words. He was being interviewed on ABC television. He was asked whether he would approve sending US weapons to the insurgents in Afghanistan if those insurgents asked for them. He replied that it was something "to be considered." He added, cautiously, that he was saying that "without having sat down with the Secretary [of Defense] and others and looked at all the ramifications."
Harmless enough? Yes, of course -- until the Soviet propaganda department got hold of those words. Then they went to town.
They treated those cautious and ambiguous words as confirming what they have been saying all along; i.e., that the US is in fact shipping arms to the Afghan resistance people. They also argued that this proves that they are justified in sending their own troops into afghanistan to "protect" that allegedly "socialist" country from "capitalist" subversion.
You and I do not know whether any US weapons have reached the Afghan rebels. We do not know whether, if they did, they got there by deliberate US action. If that has been done it has presumably been done by the CIA through clandestine channels. So far as I know there has been no overt and official sending of US guns to the Afghans.
If it has been done it is not something out of the ordinary in world affairs. The Soviets supplied arms to the Viet Cong all through the Vietnam war. The US has just as much right today to support the patriotic resistance fighters of Afghanistan.
But, in big power politics, every move has an answering move. There is a lot of talk about whether one should or should not employ "linkages" in diplomacy. Nonsense. Any move on the great chessboard of world affairs is linked to every other. A great strategical feels these "linkages" unconsciously, just as a great chess player can see the last move in the game from one of the earliest moves.
Which brings us to El Salvador.
The US has every right to take whatever action it deems appropriate to keep unfriendly guns away from neighbors to the south. But, what are the consequences?
The first consequence of concern is how it will look to other countries in Latin America. The reports are already in on that point. They don't like the idea ot the US guns in El Salvador. They dislike even more vehemently the idea of US soldiers going into any Latin country. It has happened often in the past.The memory to the Latins is unpleasant. They want no repetition.
The second consequence of concern is what use the Soviets will make of such action both in their propaganda and in their operations.
They already are using it as a propaganda defense for what they have done in Afghanistan. If the US is going to intrude in El Salvador with weapons and soldiers then they claim the right to do the same in their own neighborhood.
Of course the cases of Afghanistan and El Salvador are dissimilar. Of course the Soviets are making a false comparison. Soviet intrusion in Afghanistan was a crude piece of imperial expansion. Probably no more than two percent of the Afghan people wanted it, if that many. In el Salvador the US is trying to prop up and sustain a reform regime against a minority opposition movement.
The true merits of cases such as this are one thing. The propaganda and power politics use of such things are another.
Any "it's-my-backyard" argument is dangerous. In this case it is particularly so. The Soviets have so far not moved massively into Poland. Undoubtedly there are members of the Politburo in Moscow who are arguing that it is desperately dangerous to let the Poles get away with so much independence. We may be sure that their equivalent of the Pentagon is begging for permission to stamp out dissidence in Poland, firmly.
If the price for sending US guns and soldiers to El Salvador were to be the stamping out of freedom and independence in Poland -- the price would be high. There will be a price, simply because every power move is linked to other power situations.It would be safer, and probably a lot cheaper, to try to h andle the El Salvador problem by economic aid than by guns.