After weeks on the Washington back burner, the El Salvador war has suddenly been moved to the fore by two developments, which are related. Both support Washington's current policy of sustained, but modest, aid to the Duarte government.
One is release by the Reagan administration of the most convincing evidence yet that the Salvadorean guerrillas receive military supplies from communist-bloc nations, funneled through Nicaragua. Although no absolute proof was provided, the information made public strongly supports what many specialists had already believed - that some war materiel comes through Nicaragua.
But two points remain in dispute. How much of the weapons and ammunition now used by the Salvadorean guerrillas is sent from communist nations, and how much is captured or illegally bought from the Salvadorean Army? And of those military supplies that are smuggled to the guerrillas, does the bulk come through Nicaragua or by some other route? Salvadorean President Jose Napoleon Duarte was quoted recently as having said that more supplies are now coming via Guatemala.
In any case, there is little dispute that during the early 1980s large amounts of guns, ammunition, and other supplies were being sent from Nicaragua to guerrilla forces in El Salvador.
The other element that has brought the Salvadorean issue into the spotlight is action in both houses of Congress on Reagan administration requests for military aid to El Salvador. Release of the evidence on the smuggling of arms from Nicaragua, previously classified, may have been of some help to the administration's case. The day the information was released, the Senate approved an additional $117 million in supplemental aid for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The House previously rejected this funding request, noting that Congress had already provided $126.5 million in military aid this year.
Whether the two bodies will ultimately compromise is hard to forecast. But it may not much matter, as a House subcomittee on Wednesday took the first step toward approving nearly all the military aid for the Salvadorean government that the administration had sought for next year. It approved $123 million of the $ 132.5 million requested, as well as $180 million in economic assistance.
If, as is now expected, this is ultimately approved by both house of Congress , substantial additional funds will be available shortly - irrespective of the fate of the $117 million requested for the end of this year.
The confidence that members of Congress have in President Duarte has helped the administration more than the smuggling evidence in convincing Congress to provide more Salvadorean aid. Members of Congress believe Duarte has a reasonable prospect of ending violence against civilians - and by some accounts it is decreasing substantially; gaining control of the military; decreasing corruption; and rebuilding the economy.
The congressional mood continues to be to provide Mr. Duarte's Salvador with economic and military aid it considers sufficient to enable him to succeed - and then to keep tabs on his progress.
This is a wise approach: It is essential that both economic and military assistance be provided to El Salvador, but not in overwhelming amounts until progress is assured.
In its action this week, the House appropriations subcommittee voted that half the proposed $123 million for next year must be spent in the first six months, and the rest in the last six. The purpose was to prevent the administration from spending it too quickly and then, as it did this year, seeking supplemental funds.
Whether El Salvador can fruitfully use an additional $117 million - much of which is for trucks and helicopters - between now and Oct. 1 is questionable. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who opposed the Senate action this week, noted that the Salvadorean Army has not yet received the trucks and helicopters that supposedly were urgently needed last spring, and which Congress approved sending.