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US stand on Salvador: 'calculated ambiguity' . . . or evidence of Washington's indecision?

By Joseph C. Harsch / February 12, 1982



The focus in world affairs over the past week has continued to be on what the United States might do to Fidel Castro and his projects in the Caribbean because of El Salvador.

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According to US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. the US ''will do whatever is necessary'' to support and protect the ruling junta in El Salvador from what the Reagan administration believes to be consistent and continuing aid from Cuba to the rebels in El Salvador.

Uncertainty about what might be deemed ''necessary'' was stimulated by other remarks. The assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Thomas O. Enders, told Congress that ''nothing has been ruled out.'' Could that mean that the White House in Washington is thinking of possibly sending US armed forces to Cuba to put a final end to the Castro era there?

White House press secretary Larry Speakes asserted that ''the President has said he has no plans to send troops anywhere -- at the moment.''

When officials are questioned about the possible meaning behind these and similar statements about policy on events in Central America, they are frequently told that the administration is employing the technique of ''calculated ambiguity.'' They want to keep others ''guessing.'' There is no point, they say, in telling Fidel Castro and others ''down there'' what ''we won't do.''

Is it ''calculated ambiguity'' or an unresolved argument inside the administration over what should or could be done?

Early in the Reagan administration a study was made of all possible actions which might be taken against Fidel Castro toward ending his reign in Cuba and his capacity to continue to make trouble for the US and its interests and policies in his neighborhood. Those studies ranged from the military invasion of Cuba to seeking a negotiated accommodation there. Similar studies are understood to be going on again now.

Such studies continue to expose the difficulties involved in taking the kind of strong military action which has been implicit in the rhetoric of the Reagan administration from the days of the 1980 campaign down through the early days in office. The record is full of promises to end the Castro ''nuisance'' ''at the source.''

Offhand, it would seem to be an easy matter. Cuba is an island surrounded by water that is dominated by the US Navy. It lives under skies dominated by the US Air Force. Its population is only about 10 million. Surely, the United States with its enormous military power could stamp out Senor Castro's puny military forces with a little finger.

But when the Pentagon ''staffs out'' the problem of a Cuban invasion, it comes up with disconcerting conclusions. The Cuban Army may be small (about 200, 000 men), but it is tough and has been battle-hardened in Angola, Ethiopia, and other places. There is a substantial militia, probably about 100,000. It is calculated that Army and militia would fight against any invasion. The job could be done, but the cost in terms of casualties could run very high. A US force as big as the one committed to Vietnam might be required to do the job, and with no certainty of quick success.

Complicating the matter is the fact that the Soviet Union gives every indication of caring about what happens to Cuba.