It seems to me a pity that the debate over what the United States should or should not be doing about, and in, Central America is largely on the wrong arguments.
President Reagan bases his case largely on the belief that unless he intervenes the Soviets will acquire military bases in Central America. The opposition bases its case largely on the assumption that if he does intervene the US will find itself in another Vietnam.
It seems to me that both are false.
As regards Vietnam. There is not the slightest possibility that US intervention in Central America could end up in a Vietnam-type situation.
It could not happen because the Central Americans do not have the population to build a major military force. The Vietnamese, as noted last week in this space, had, and have, 90 million people ready and able to mount a large army. It has 1 million men under arms today. All of Central America combined (excluding Mexico) has fewer than 100,000 men under arms. Its total population is 23 million.
The only substantial armed force in the area is Cuba's at a quarter of a million. But US seapower can, if it is given the order, prevent any men or weapons moving from Cuba to Central America. It can equally prevent any help reaching leftist movements or military units from the Soviet Union.
Vietnam was a ''no win'' situation for the US.
Central America is a ''can't lose'' situation for the US.
If Mr. Reagan means business, as he gives every indication that he does, it seems to me that he can easily have what he wants. Congress can, in theory, cut off funds for ''covert'' CIA support for Nicaraguan refugees trying to go home. But the President is commander in chief of the armed forces. Congress cannot, and certainly will not, prevent the President from sending naval task forces to the area and ground units for maneuvers in Honduras. The ground units began arriving last weekend.
The serious question is only about the terms which Mr. Reagan will accept from Nicaragua. Is he going to agree to let the present regime continue on condition that it ceases the export of weapons to the rebels in El Salvador? Or is he going to want changes in the leadership of the regime?
If he would be satisfied with the first he can probably have it tomorrow, at no further cost. If he is going for either overthrow of the regime or a shift in the leadership away from Marxism, the negotiating will take longer and more actual US military action may be necessary. A de facto blockade (to be called a quarantine) might be required.
But Nicaragua with a population of only 2.5 million cannot possibly stand up against the military might of the United States.
As for the Soviet factor. There is no evidence that the Soviets have made a substantial investment either in men or weapons in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The most they have apparently done is arrange for shipment of American weapons captured in Vietnam to Central America. They have plenty of such weapons, as does Vietnam.
Moscow will, of course, make appropriate noises about US pressure, but it is unrealistic to think that it would do more than make noises, plus what propaganda it may out of the affair.
The real issue is not Soviet troops, or weapons, or bases.
The Soviets are extremely careful about putting their weapons, and soldiers, where they might get lost. They learned their lesson in the Cuban missile crisis of 1963. Not since then have they invested anything substantial in a risky venture, as the US did in Iran.
The real issue is political and ideological.
How much does it really matter to the US if a regime in a small country in Central America decides to practice Marxism in its effort to get its country going?
The case for intervention is better if after practicing some Marxism a country then tries to export it. That is what seems to have been happening. The Marxist element in Nicaragua has been increasing its strength in the leadership and beginning to practice some aspects of Marxism although most enterprise seems to be still in private hands. Aid to the rebels in El Salvador has worried Mr. Reagan. He wants it stopped.
Should Nicaragua and El Salvador be allowed to decide for themselves whether they want to try Marxism? Or should the US tell them that such practice is forbidden?
If Mr. Reagan forbids them, he will almost certainly have his way at probably minor, perhaps negligible, immediate cost. The long-term cost in terms of Latin American resentment of US interference could be something else.