Arms and El Salvador

Escalation of United States military involvement in El Salvador would be controversial, to say the least, under any conditions. To minimize divisiveness, the administration would need to obtain the fullest congressional and public support in advance of any such move.

Thus it was well for officials to issue quick denials that the administration is intending any immediate increase in the limit of 55 US military ''trainers'' for El Salvador - or, even more important, any change in their noncombat role. (The denials were called for after one senior official had told reporters such matters were under review.)

And it will be well for President Reagan to send no more military aid than Congress is willing to authorize. To take the extra $60 million he wants from his own contingency funds, as has been suggested, could look like an end run.

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Congress, for its part, has the responsibility to give every consideration to the President's case. His aides are making stark arguments about the Salvadorean regime running out of ammunition within a month if Washington does not come through.

The administration's new stress on linking El Salvador to the East-West conflict has come of something as a surprise. During his trip to Central and South America President Reagan had appeared responsive to the local economic, social, and political problems that require attention whatever the communist exploitation of them. Secretary of State Shultz, too, seemed to be taking a broader and more temperate approach than Secretary Haig, whose original hot spotlight on little El Salvador had been surprising in its time.

Now Washington is talking bullets again. And doing it just when Pope John Paul II's trip is putting the focus on peace and concern for the poor in Central America. On the eve of his journey the Pope appointed a new archbishop of San Salvador, a man known for condemning violence on both sides of the conflict and favoring dialogue between them. The guerrillas, however hypocritically, proclaimed a cease-fire.

Has the administration genuine new reason for alarm about the interests of the US and the people of El Salvador? If so, is more military aid the best way to address it? Should such aid be given before the regime substantially improves its human rights record or promised only if it does so?

For all the US arms and advice so far, the regime has not developed the tactics to keep the guerrillas from gaining at least a stalemate. This ineffectiveness seems particularly ironic in the light of observers' impressions that most Salvadoreans do not support the guerrillas even though they may share their nominal ideals of freedom and justice. By contrast, for example, most Nicaraguans did support the fighters against the Somoza dictatorship.

Here are some of the points for Congress to consider. Meanwhile, we can only repeat what we have said before, that the efforts of all sides need to be bent toward long overdue negotiations in place of tragic warfare.

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