Reagan and Central America

President Reagan is right about Central America. It is a region on the doorstep of the United States and therefore demands a United States policy that above all promotes the democratic forces and practices there which alone can thwart communist revolution. The fact that US policies in the past helped create the very conditions which have spawned leftist revolutions does not mean that the US should not try by all reasonable means to stem a potential tide of Marxism in the region. What happens in Central America is strategically important, and, as long as there are democrats and moderates prepared to fight for economic reform and social justice, they deserve Washington's sustained help.

Why, in short, should Moscow and its surrogate, Cuba, be handed an easy victory in Central America?

Significantly, however, Mr. Reagan chose moderate language in dealing with the security threat, unlike the cold-war rhetoric of early days. Most important , he highlighted the goals of democratic reform and human freedom, economic development, security for the region, and ''dialogue and negotiations'' with a view to a political solution. Surely these are objectives to which Republicans and Democrats can give their support, even though there may be disagreements as to the methods by which the goals are achieved.

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The urgent need is to work out a bipartisan consensus about the methods. Understandably, many legislators are skeptical about pouring more military aid into El Salvador. Democratic Congressman Christopher Dodd - speaking eloquently of the past injustices in Central America which have given rise to revolution - goes so far as to call the President's policy a ''formula for failure.'' Other critics, too, speak of the risk of the US becoming sucked into a Vietnam-style quagmire in Central America: A private group of some 50 Latin and North Americans, including such prominent individuals as Sol Linowitz, former ambassador to the OAS, and Gen. David Jones, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs , warns against trying to solve the conflict in El Salvador by military means or sharply confronting revolutionary regimes, as in Nicaragua.

These warnings have to be taken seriously. Yet, judging from Mr. Reagan's balanced comments and temperate tone, there is no basic disagreement about focusing primarily on economic and social reform. The question is how much military aid is necessary in order to enable such democratization to go forward. Some progress has been made in El Salvador - in land reform, for example - though nowhere near enough. The problem is that it will take time to keep the engine of reform moving and, meanwhile, the guerrillas are doing everything to try to frustrate it. It does not seem unreasonable that the Salvadorean government be given enough security assistance - not to win a military victory, perhaps, but to deny the guerrillas a victory and foster their peaceful participation in the political process, including elections.

Clearly more US economic and military aid for El Salvador must continue to have strings attached to it: The Salvadorean military must restructure itself, the land reform must continue, the judicial system must be improved. It will be a discredit to the US if it comes to be perceived as supporting a still-repressive regime at all costs. So the pressure on the Salvadorean government must not let up. But, if a higher level of aid is deemed necessary to pursue the goal of reform, it could prove shortsighted of Congress not to provide it. Yes, it would be a gamble. Yes, it could take many more years for El Salvador to see its way into the light and, yes, there is no guarantee of success. But, if the US gives up the effort, it might see another Marxist group come to power, this time in San Salvador. This is not to suggest that all the guerrillas are Marxists, for they are not; this is why the stress must be on political dialogue and on bringing all elements into the democratic process.

As for Nicaragua, in which the Marxist radicals are edging out the moderates, the President's assurances that the US does not seek the overthrow of the Sandinista government is welcome. However, many Americans will remain concerned about covert US help for anti-Sandinista forces, especially when some of those elements were former supporters of ousted dictator Somoza.

Yet there is an important consideration which Congress and the American people should be aware of, and that is the Soviet Union's growing assertiveness in Central America. We applaud the President for not overdramatizing this issue, for in the past it has tended to obscure the underlying social and economic ills which have fed leftist revolution and thus to distort the problem. But Moscow's role (via Cuba) should not be underestimated either. The Russians are said to be facilitating the sale of arms to leftist revolutionaries in Central America. And, in ideological terms, they write openly of supporting ''armed violence'' as a means of revolution in Central America - thereby agreeing with Fidel Castro after years of holding him in check. So the ''East-West struggle'' is not entirely irrelevant to what the US today faces in Central America.

President Reagan seems calmly to have put the issue in balance. His task now is to appoint a special envoy for Central America (in accordance with Congress's wishes) who will help the Salvadorean government find a basis of political dialogue with the guerrillas. He apparently is having second thoughts about selecting former Democratic senator Richard Stone, who once worked for Guatemala. But there are those who have both competence and stature and could be expected to do a splendid job: Sol Linowitz, Eliot Richardson, Dean Rusk, to name a few.

In sum, the United States is committed - after decades of neglect - to social , economic, and political progress in Central America. It is bound to be a long struggle, for democracy is not the work of a day. But, as long as there are democratic forces willing to keep the struggle going, should not the US stick by them?

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