Washington — We are now on the downhill slope of the El Salvador affair. The official Reagan administration line is that it has been a success. Moscow and Havana were challenged and warned. There has been a slowing down of the flow of weapons to the insurgents in the back jungles of El Salvador. Fewer weapons are entering and leaving Cuba. Fewer are moving from Nicaragua to the rebels. So say administration spokesmen.
Add to that that the threat of a right-wing coup in El Salvador has been parried by timely White House warnings. At least no coup has yet taken place. Washington is committed to sustaining the still supposedly reformist regime of President Jose Napoleon Duarte.
It all began as an official "crisis" and a "drawing the line" to keep the Kremlin out of Central America. It sent a shock wave through Congress and the Western alliance. It focused national and world attention on a decision to send US guns and "advisers" into El Salvador. It required hasty assertions from the White House and the State Department that this is not another Vietnam and that no US soldiers will go into combat in El Salvador.
There was a final flareup over whether the press had exaggerated the affair. A background briefing at the State Department by career diplomat John A. Bushnell included the suggestion that "this story is running about five times as big as it really is." But that, in turn, had to be repudiated at the White House to avoid a countercharge of scapegoating. Mr. Bushnell, it was said, "won't be there much longer, if he isn't gone already." That was White House counsel Edwin Meese III on March 17.
But it had all ended in fact on March 14 when career ambassador and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Walter J.F Stoessel went before the Senate Appropriations Committee and put the matter into a carefully defined and restrained framework.
"The major emphasis of our assistance program for El Salvador is economic rather than military," Mr. Stoessel said. The number of US military advisers assigned to El Salvador is 54. They will be kept well away from combat, he added.
As the smoke of the Salvador affair drifted away, attention in Washington turned to the precise nature and implications of the Reagan administration's new military budget. It has been appraised, critically, of course, by members of the former Carter defense team of experts.
According to these critics it is not spectacular; does not reflect any important change in national policy or direction; amounts to a relatively modest and "justified" increase in defense spending. In terms of appropriations, it will probably mean defense will go up only from 5 percent to 6 percent of the gross national product. In terms of actual spending, it will probably be less.
The only real novelty is the plan to refurbish two old battleships; one aircraft carrier, the Oriskany; and a few smaller ships. There are said to be minor shifts in funds from "readiness" to "procurement." This reverses a later Carter administration shift of funds in the opposite direction during the Iran crisis when emphasis was on immediate readiness of forces.
Most interesting of the comments on the program is that it appears to assume that the Soviets will abide by the main terms of the signed but unratified SALT II treaty. By building a defense program on that assumption, the door is left open for a renewal of talks with the Soviets about strategic arms limitations. It remains possible that SALT II might be ratified in the end -- even by a Reagan administration which campaigned against SALT II last fall.
It is not easy for a new administration to make drastic changes in existing policy. It is somewhat like taking over a chess game already half played out. The new team has to begin where the pieces are on the board. One can't begin a new game.
In this case, campaign rhetoric implied radical changes in defense posture. But now that the Reagan team has had a chance to look things over they are settling into substantial continuity. Pentagon watchers think the actual increase in defense spending for fiscal year 1982 (the first year that can be affected substantially by the new administration) will amount to only about $5 billion, although authorizations will be up far beyond that figure.
Another interesting feature is that while authorizations are included for a new manned bomber and a new land-based mobile missile (the MX), nothing in the decisions to date forecloses any options. The preliminary work for a new manned bomber means that they can opt for a revised B-1, or go for a later concept, the "Stealth," or something entirely different, perhaps a "stand off" bomber to be armed with cruise missiles.
The nature of the new MX is under review.
Continuity applies also to thinking and talking about the Middle East. The new Reagan team is eager to find places to establish air and sea bases in the upper Indian Ocean. Their preliminary ideas call for land bases also in a rim around that area. But, of course, getting fixed bases means negotiations with the countries involved. Those had begun under the Carter administration. They will go forward as soon as the Reagan team can get into place and start working.
Reagan campaign rhetoric called for substantial and drastic increases in US defense posture. Yet actual plans on the Reagan drawing board today call for a projection from Carter policies in a slightly upward direction, but no drastic change of direction; not even closing out the possibility of reviving SALT II. Army, Navy, and Air Force can sign contracts for more ships, guns, and planes. But with Trident submarines, for example, two years behind schedule, it is difficult to see how actual procurement can be speeded up by much.
There is no commitment to a major new arms race inherent yet in Reagan admi nistration planning.