Too late for a negotiated peace in El Salvador's civil war? No, say the sponsors of a congressional resolution calling on the Reagan administration to seek the kind of negotiations it has rejected so far. They cite word from the major rebel forces expressing willingness for peace talks without preconditions on any side. They say President Duarte's Christian Democrats, too, are willing to negotiate though deterred under the thumb of the intransigent ruling junta. There is a reason for urgency in that one side or the other may break the current military stalemate and then refuse negotiation out of hand.
Whatever the military situation, a negotiated outcome offers a greater chance for peaceful progress in El Salvador than one side's victory of arms without accommodation of differences. An argument for passage of the congressional resolution is that it would provide President Reagan with two options, each of which could be useful in its way:
* This is not simply a concurrent resolution floating a congressional opinion. It is a joint resolution that goes to the President for signature, perhaps attached to some legislation he would otherwise want to sign. One option would be for Mr. Reagan to accept such a display of majority opinion, sign the bill, and use it as ammunition in nudging the Salvadoran junta toward peaceful change.
* Another option would be to refuse to sign or, if the resolution is attached to an otherwise acceptable bill, sign it with reservations. This could occasion a valuable clarification and justification of Reagan policy.
A debate on US involvement in El Salvador is one goal of the resolution's four sponsors: Senators Tsongas and Dodd and Representatives Barnes and Solarz, all Democrats. From a generation with vivid memories of Vietnam, they want the debate before the US becomes too deeply enmeshed in another conflict. They see differences with Vietnam, of course. El Salvador is on the US doorstep. Mr. Duarte is judged an honorable US client in comparison with corrupt leaders in Saigon. But Mr. Duarte is not in the driver's seat. The need is to fortify him by using US policy to control the excesses of the junta that dominates him.
One congressional effort in this direction was the requirement that the President periodically certify the junta's progress on human rights as a condition of aid. Mr. Reagan could have used this legal requirement on him to encourage junta reforms. Instead, he certified progress that most observers deny and thus failed to take advantage of the opportunity. A resolution for negotiations would give him another means to press the junta.
Ideally, the US would not act alone in seeking negotiations. The resolution notes the willingness of other nations to support such a policy. Certainly it would be wise to enlist the Organization of American States in efforts for peaceful settlement.
But with the certification requirement and with the resolution proposal, Congress has means to keep the debate alive and at least pin down the policy of the United States. It is a debate in which all Americans, North, South, and Central, have a vital stake.