The deepening crisis in El Salvador has implications far beyond the boundaries of what is the smallest Central American republic. Among the questions the crisis raises are:
* Is there an irrevocable swing to the extreme left in the Caribbean that might eventually align the region with Fidel Castro's Cuba or the Soviet Union or turn it into a threat to US interests?
* Can the US, or, more precisely, US influence, avoid being dragged down when discredited, dictatorial, and unpopular leaders who enjoyed US patronage are eventually overthrown?
* And, moving from the general to the particular, if there is a lesson to be learned from its experience with the rise and fall of the deposed Shah of Iran, has the US begun to learn that lesson?
In its relations with dictatorial or ruthless allies or clients, any US administration is inevitably caught between ideals in the US Constitution and demands of Realpolitik in a world that is far from ideal.
There is always a constant inhibiting factor: A sovereign government is bound by international law and convention to deal only with sovereign governments. In Iran, for example, so long as the institution of monarchy was in place, the Shah on the throne was the best Shah any incumbent president had to deal with. There was no alternative.
Si ilarly, in the Caribbean 25 years ago, dictator Fulgencio Batista was the sovereign head of state in Cuba. A year ago, dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle was the sovereign head of state in Nicaragua. Six months ago, dictstor Carlos Humberto Romero was the sovereign head of state in El Salvador.
Critics of US policy argue that successive American presidents stuck too long in turn with the Shah, with General Batista, with General Somoza, and with General Romero. The result, these same critics might say, is that the US now has: in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and a fiervely anti-American populace that have held 50 Americans hostage for nearly 22 weeks; in Cuba, two decades of an anti-American Fidel Castro who works in tandem with the Soviet Union; in Nicaragua, a pendulum that is still swinging leftward after the fall of General Somoza and may end up with anti-American Marxists in full control; in El Salvador, a pendulum starting to swing leftward with US efforts to steady it somewhere in the middle under heavy fire -- literally and figuratively.
In one sense, the Shah of Iran was in a different league from that of dictators Batista, Somoza, and Romero. But in all four men's countries, the classic pattern of revolution has unfolded:
An elitist right-wing ruler or oligarchy has held on to power so long as the intellectuals (or middle class) and the mass did not unite to bring down the existing order. But once the two made common cause, the days of longstanding privilege were numbered. Obviously, US administrations have had to make their own assessments about unpopular regimes' likelihood of survival. Any premature move to ensure against an unpopular client's overthrow by association with the potential overthrower could make a bad situation only worse.
The present role of the US in El Salvador suggests that the Carter administration -- influenced by the record in at least Nucaragua -- is moving earlier than it did in Nicaragua to support forces of moderation. The US aim: to try to steady the political pendulum somewhere in the middle.
What happens in El Salvador could have a significant effect on the immediate course of events in Guatemala and Honduras. Both are quiescent political volcanoes still fiefdoms of right-wing oligarchies.
On July 17, 1979, Nicaraguan President Somoza resigned after an 18-month civil war, discredited and loathed by most of his people. His family had been in power since the 1930s. Rightly or wrongly, its members had been seen as creatures of the US from the outset. The pendulum swung left after his ouster. Despite US efforts to temper the swing, it still threatens to go as far left as it once was right.
A similar situation was brewing in El Salvador. But three months after the overthrow of General Somoza in Nicaragua, on Oct. 15, 1979, the offending right-wing dictator in El Salvador, Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero, was ousted in a coup.
There is widespread and probably accurate belief that the US encouraged the coup in the hope of preventing things from going the same way they had in Nicaragua. In place of General Espino, a joint civilian-military junta was installed. Since then, the US has increasingly involved itself in trying to establish in El Salvador a moderate government committed to reform and fairer shares for the impoverished people in this tiny land.
What has to be decided still is whether the US has again left things too late to prevent the pendulum going all the way to the left and leaving the moderates behind. At the moment, the US is pinning its hopes on Army leaders somewhat less tarnished than General Romero and on civilian politicians of the Christian Democratic Party, which has an honorable record of opposition to the excesses of General Romero and his predecessors.
The Carter administration has encouraged initiation of a land-reform program. This was long overdue, since till now less than 2 percent of the population owned 57 percent of the country's cultivable land. Economic and military aid is being given the junta. And a vigorous new US Ambassador, Robert White, has taken over as head of the American diplomatic mission.
For the US, it is a race against time. Both the extreme right and the extreme left have a vested interest in descrediting, even liquidating, the moderates, in addition to savaging each other. The US has committed itself to building a center that can hold.
Before his assassination last month, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Mgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero, had reportedly come to the conclusion that this hoped-for center could not hold and that between two evils, the extreme left enjoying popular support would be preferable to the extreme right defending the narrowest of priveleged oligarchies and exercising power through a trigger-happy Army.
That is apparently why he was against US military aid to El Salvador -- an attitude that helped invite his murder, presumably at the hands of the extreme right.
Ironically, Archbishop Romero had probably never foreseen that he was to be the revolutionary catalyst in El Salvador. When he assumed his high office, he was a nonpolitical and conservative prelate. Increasingly he spoke out for the poor and for human rights. In so doing he gave the classic revolutionary process a tremendous shove.