As US President Ronald Reagan draws the line on El Salvador, he may convince Moscow that he is tough . . . in the short run. But this may lose him the one thing that would convince Moscow of Western toughness in the long run: West European public support for deployment of new theater nuclear weapons on their soil.
This is the specter haunting some policymakers on the Continent as the new US administration makes European support for an American hard line on El Salvador its first test of allied solidarity.
This sets up something of a US-European confrontation. Washington takes it for granted that European allies, who have no conceivable national interests in this tiny Latin American country, should support US policy in America's backyard. Some key continental European politicians, on the other hand, think it would be "absurd and grotesque," as one well-informed source put it, for Washington "to consider any [peripheral] Caribbean or Latin American problem as the yardstick of [West European] foreign policy" or "Soviet acceptance of linkage."
For the European democratic left, which is in power in West Germany and Belgium and stands to gain in the May election in the Netherlands, the American request for backing on a hard line for El Salvador poses special difficulties. The Socialist International with former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt at its head, has firmly established links with the Salvadoran left and would abhor abandoning the left to brutal supression by the Salvadoran junta.
Beyond inherent political distaste for deserting the Salvadoran left, there is also an important tactical consideration for those European Social Democrats who are strong NATO supporters. They don't want to fritter away their limited political influence over their own left wings on the marginal and potentially explosive issue of El Salvador. They would rather save this influence for the crucial task of winning support for new NATO weapons to offset the Soviet theater military buildup of the past decade.
From the continental European point of view, then, El Salvador is an unfortunate issue at an unfortunate time.
It raises a powerful new anti-American cause reminiscent of Vietnam in the very countries that are wavering on the 1979 NATO decision to deploy new nuclear weapons: the Netherlands and Belgium.
A serious unraveling process could be started. Large anti-junta, anti-American rallies have been staged in West Germany and Italy, and the issue could push the antinuclear left into power in the Netherlands and abort the Dutch pledge to station new nuclear weapons on Dutch soil in the mid-1980s. If this happens, the Belgian government would undoubtedly fail to ratify its approval of new NATO nuclear armaments. If public opinion eventually forced Rome to withdraw permission for deployment of new nuclear weapons in Italy, the precondition for West German acceptance of new nuclear weapons would no longer exist: deployment in at least one other continental country in addition to West Germany.
The timing of the Salvadoran issue also concerns some Western European policymakers, for it strains relations between the US and Europe before the two have begun policies they agree on.
Tactically the European tour of Ambassador Lawrence Eagleburger this week has caught the Continent at a bad moment: Its supreme foreign policy conciliator, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, is far away from Europe.
(Mr. Genscher returns from Pakistan on Feb. 20. Mr. Eagleburger will fly back to Bonn to see him. Eagleburger came first to Bonn, then went to Paris and Brussels, and will stop in London before returning here.)
So far Eagleburger is encountering extreme reserve on the Continent to his efforts to rally approval of American support for the Salvadoran junta. Off the Continent, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- who is ideologically attuned to Mr. Reagan -- would appear to have no misgivings about the US course. But continental reserve ranges from French skepticism to West German and Dutch forebodings.
As one West German source explains, "The Americans are preeminent and have direct, immediate priorities [in Latin America]. But we would wish for a policy that would [try to manage things] by less direct means and without a high profile of military and political American backing of what, after all, is a dictatorship."