The Salvador 'domino' debate: why Congress hesitates on more aid

The Reagan administration deployed squads of high-level officials across Capitol Hill this week in an offensive aimed at securing new aid for El Salvador. And the administration Wednesday made a major advance.

A Senate subcommittee approved President Reagan's request for $60 million in military aid for that embattled Central American nation.

As of this writing, some of the administration's forward units were still under congressional fire. But the administration had at least established a beachhead. However, it's unclear whether it will gain all its objectives, since a House subcommittee has yet to vote on the issue.

Nearly everyone agreed that the administration's point man on El Salvador, one-time Marine Capt. George Shultz, was the right man to lead the charge.

But one problem has faced Mr. Shultz as the subcommittees considered administration requests for additional military aid to El Salvador: Other administration spokesmen, from the President down, had earlier warned so vehemently about a Soviet threat in Central America, as well as the danger of ''falling dominoes'' and a potential Eastern Europe on America's doorstep, that it had created a credibility problem.

Many Democrats and quite a few Republicans on the Hill could not believe that the threat was that serious. If it was indeed that serious, they said, then they feared the administration, despite its disclaimers, might be drawn into a Vietnam-type war.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democrat from Delaware and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, summed up much congressional sentiment when he told Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Enders:

''It seems to me that in a sense you have become your own worst enemy with all the rhetoric. . . . It's not El Salvador itself that reminds people of Vietnam. It's talk about an Eastern Europe in Latin America and how we're going to have the dominoes falling.''

Mr. Enders was last seen under seige by Maryland Rep. Clarence D. Long's House subcommittee on foreign operations.

At no time since the Vietnam war itself perhaps have senators and congressmen seemed to agonize so much over a foreign-policy issue. There have been tough votes on arms sales to Arab nations which have required heavy White House lobbying. The Panama Canal treaty and the proposed SALT II treaty provoked intense and often emotional congressional debate. But El Salvador appears to play on the emotions more than all the other issues combined.

In the view of some senators and congressmen, all the choices to be made on El Salvador are disagreeable ones. The Salvadorean armed forces which the United States is backing have produced men who have murdered American churchwomen. But the guerrilla leaders who are fighting against those forces are seen as equally unsavory. Congressional heads are aswirl with anticommunist sentiment, talk of death squads, and talk of dominoes. And then there is the ever-so-distant possibility that American troops might eventually get involved. To some, it looks like a bad dream.

In his recent appearances on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Shultz has admitted to some of the deficiencies in the Salvadorean government with which the US is allied. His has been a low-key approach aimed at defusing emotion, avoiding confrontation, and building a consensus behind increased aid.

In a hearing before the Senate subcommittee on foreign operations Tuesday, Shultz argued that the administration is deeply concerned about human rights abuses in El Salvador, and about the killing of Americans there in particular. He indicated that the administration is putting heavy pressure on the Salvadorean government to end such abuses:

''If they don't clean up this act, the support is going to dry up, and they've been told that and they know that and that will happen,'' he said.

The secretary's candor has probably enhanced his high standing among his congressional supporters and even among a good number of the administration's liberal critics on Capitol Hill.

Shultz is widely viewed as a man of character and integrity. But outside the bewildering series of public hearings which have been held on El Salvador - four of them on Tuesday alone - some senators and congressmen are reported to be quietly asking whether Shultz is really the man in charge of Salvador policy. If he were, say staff aides to some of the Democratic liberals on the Hill, they would be to a degree reassured.

They suspect, however, that it is national security adviser William P. Clark and UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick who are the driving forces behind the policy at the moment. Both are considered by some of their critics to be extreme hard-liners.

''I'm not sure that the Congress is worked up over El Salvador to the degree that it was over Panama and the SALT treaty,'' says I. M. Destler, director of the Executive-Congressional Relations Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ''But El Salvador does trigger thinking about a lot of big issues: What do you do about Communism? Do you fight other people's civil wars? Is there any way to put a cap on our involvement?

''None of the options is considered attractive,'' says Mr. Destler. ''It's an issue on which members of Congress would like to find a formula for not taking responsibility themselves. But they can't quite see how. I think that's an element in the anguish.''

In the House on Wednesday, Congressman Long's subcommittee was still debating the administration's request to shift to El Salvador $60 million in already appropriated military aid funds.

Like so many congressmen, Long is torn over the issues. The Maryland Democrat has visited El Salvador five times. A showcase nursery and kindergarten in the Salvadorean town of Berlin were named after him.

On his last visit, Long said recently, he detected an improvement in the quality of the Salvadorean government and its human rights record. For example, he said he thought that Salvadorean Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia ''has gotten more sensitive, more responsive, over the last year or so.''

But Long wonders whether change is coming fast enough and whether the Reagan administration has found the right ''combination of carrot and stick'' in El Salvador. A memo on America's strategy submitted to him by Shultz has not convinced him that the administration has the answers, he says.

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