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Shultz aims to reduce liabilities for Reagan over El Salvador

By Joseph C. Harsch / February 3, 1984

United States Secretary of State George Shultz went off to Central America this week partly because there was something useful he might be able to do there. But it was also partly because, for the time being, there is little he dare do about his other big problem - the Middle East.

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He cannot do anything about the Middle East because Israel is in the throes of a political crisis. The government of Yitzhak Shamir can fall at any moment. Little useful diplomatic business can be done with Israel or about the Middle East until the present political uncertainty is resolved in Israel.

But there is still time to save, or to try to save, what has become a degenerating condition in El Salvador.

In that unhappy country, three years of US military aid to the government seems further from achieving its goal than when it started. The goal was to build a ''military shield'' behind which a right-wing tyranny could be converted into a reformed, moderate democracy capable of attracting general popular support.

The shield has of late been dented and penetrated. Rebel forces have been able for months now to exercise the military initiative in several parts of the country. Even the best US-trained government units seem to be unable to make headway against the highly mobile and resourceful rebels. Defections from government forces to the rebels are reported to be frequent. Rebels claim that they obtain most of their weapons and ammunition by capture or purchase from government units.

Behind this less-than-impenetrable shield, the infamous ''death squads'' have apparently continued their work largely unrestrained by repeated US warnings. Vice-President George Bush was there Dec. 11, repeating the warning with all possible earnestness and solemnity. But according to the Roman Catholic Church and other independent sources, the ''death squads'' continued their accustomed nocturnal rounds.

This week Secretary Shultz again repeated the warnings that the ''death squads'' must be curbed if US aid is to continue. He used the phrase ''death squads'' at a formal dinner given him in San Salvador by officials of the El Salvador government. That government itself is presumably doing what it can to end the right-wing terror in its midst. The trouble, of course, is that the leaders of the government are less powerful than the unofficial junta of conservative landowners who control the terror by night.

The El Salvador government has been able to reassign a few officers believed to be linked to the ''death squads,'' but Mr. Shultz would hardly have gone down there in person if Washington was satisfied that the condition had been cured. The trouble, for Mr. Shultz, is that continuation of the deadly terror on the right undermines congressional willingness to provide more funds.

What most worries the administration is that if conditions continue to deteriorate in El Salvador, the only way to save the country from falling to the rebels would then be direct US intervention. That would not be popular in Congress or at home generally. It could become a political liability to President Reagan in the election campaign.