The nascent peace process in El Salvador has surmounted a crucial first hurdle in what remains a long course. That Monday's meeting between President Jose Napoleon Duarte and rebel leaders was held at all and attracted no violence marks progress in and of itself in a nation that has seen five years of conflict without conferences between the warring factions. The talks also progressed, at least modestly: The two sides decided to set up a commission that would try to bring about an end to the civil war.
Even frequent critics of the Reagan administration's Central American policy express support for this emerging political process, which it certainly deserves. To a large extent their backing stems from the confidence that President Duarte has personally inspired from a broad political spectrum in the United States and elsewhere. In the short run, at least, he has wide support for his peace initiative; it will be up to his government and to the rebels to make sufficient progress over the long haul toward a cessation of hostilities to retain this backing.
Some skepticism exists about the timing of Monday's meeting: three weeks prior to the US election, and less than a week before the important second Reagan-Mondale debate, which is to focus on foreign affairs. An important issue in the debate, and possibly the campaign, was expected to have been whether administration policies in Central America - especially El Salvador - are appropriate, or whether they concentrate overly on military solutions rather than negotiation. The Salvadorean talks appear to have blunted this issue.
The respect President Duarte commands causes some US critics of the Reagan administration Central American policies to accept the Salvadorean's explanation for the timing: that he selected this past Monday because it was the anniversary of his nation's 1979 coup, rather than for any political advantage it might present the American President.
What finally will come from the Salvadorean talks can not now be foreseen. The gap between the two sides is very wide on some issues. President Duarte, for instance, wants the rebels to participate in a national election next year. The rebels insist that first they be allowed to share governmental power, which Duarte rejects.
If this week's talks ultimately yield a solution to the Salvadorean conflict, the policies of the Reagan administration merit credit. In the face of criticism it has been insisting that the best way to peace was by enabling the Salvadoreans to strengthen themselves militarily so as to hold off the rebels while at the same time strengthening their democratic process, prodding their leaders into curbing right-wing death squad activity, and beginning to rebuild the nation's economy.
But credit for getting the talks started deserves to be spread beyond the two Salvadorean sides and President Reagan's policies. Congressional critics of the US administration's Salvadorean policies have persistently pushed for an effort to reach a political end to the strife - a point not lost on either the Reagan administration or President Duarte, inasmuch as Congress substantially could control the strings of the US aid purse.
The bipartisan Kissinger commission report made some Americans realize that the roots of the Salvadorean and other Central American conflicts were indigenous, and that the solutions ultimately would need to be found in areas other than military, even if some military action was necessary.
The Duarte decision to seek a political settlement to the civil war comes at a time when his government is in a position of relative military strength and the guerrillas are in one of comparative weakness - both militarily and in rural popular support. In corresponding circumstances three years ago the then-government determined to try to crush the rebels militarily, without success. It is heartening that President Duarte is taking the opposite tack this time; it is to be hoped that the rebels are sincerely willing to seek a negotiated settlement, and are not merely seeking to buy time.