The United States dilemma over El Salvador continues as it nudges the country's new leadership toward greater respect for human rights and major economic and social reform.
For months, the US has steadily increased its support, both diplomatic and economic, to El Salvador's joint civilian-military junta -- because in Washington's view there simply was no other alternative to either leftist or rightist extremism.
US support, however, was reluctant at best. The Carter administration, fully aware of the junta's many lapses, also recognized the deepening struggle within the military over the direction El Salvador should be going.
It worried that rightist military elements would undo the junta's attempts at instituting reforms and thus give the left a new rallying cry. It also was uncomfortable with human rights' violations by the military.
Now, as the junta gives way to a civilian president and a military vice-president, with all the uncertainties the new arrangement implies, the US dilemma intensifies. The US believes this new arrangement is an even better alternative for the country than the junta was.
But the US has no assurance that the new government, headed by Christian Democratic leader Jose Napoleon Duarte, will be able to curb the many excesses by the military and the police, despite the good intentions it professes.
Mr. Duarte last week said most Salvadorans "have a history of living in misery. For 50 years, the same people had all the power, all the money, all the jobs, all the education, all the opportunities. This must end."
Washington agrees. But the Salvadoran right continues to press for restoration of the old status quo in which the few ruled. The US looks on, somewhat helplessly, as right-wing vigilante groups, in an effort to prevent change, operate with abandon throughout the country, responsible for fully half the 10,000 deaths so far this year.
This sense of helplessness was clearly mirrored in last week's decision by Washington to resume $20 million in economic aid, largely food credits, to El Salvador after a 2 1/2-week suspension brought on by the brutal killings of four US missionary women in El Salvador. Two probes of these deaths have yet to name the assassins.
Still on hold is $5 million in US military assistance -- mainly communications equipment -- which Washington would like to release but feels it must withhold in order to continue pressing the government in San Salvador to find the killers of the missionary women. By continuing to withhold this aid, the Carter administration also hopes to prove to US critics that it still has some leverage in El Salvador.
Not overlooked by the Carter people, however, is the likelihood that the new Reagan administration will make changes in US policy and attitudes about Central America -- and particularly El Salvador.
The Carter administration would like to shore up the Salvadoran government -- Mr. Duarte as president and Col. Jaime Abdul Gutierrez as vice-president and Army commander in chief -- before leaving office. That would enable Mr. Carter to leave as effective a government in San Salvador as possible -- and thus make it less likely that the Reagan people will move to set up a rightist government in the Central American country.