The United States is looking for concrete evidence of Soviet goodwill in hot spots such as El Salvador. But it considers a US-Soviet summit meeting unlikely to help matters much at this stage.
This was the initial reaction in Washington to Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev's offer of a summit meeting with Ronald Reagan. The summit offer came as the Reagan administration continued to present what it considers to be irrefutable evidence that Cuba, with Soviet backing, is supplying massive support to leftist guerrillas in the small Central American nation of El Salvador.
US officials apparently believe that a summit meeting might establish the wrong atmosphere -- and send the wrong "signal" both to friends and adversaries -- at a time when the US is trying to toughen the American stance toward Moscow. The new administration is not eager to get into such a high-level US-Soviet meeting before it has its priorities more carefully sorted out and before it has repaired some of its military defenses.
But the Soviet summit offer is viewed, if nothing else, as a clever ploy, designed in part to place the US on the defensive. It allows the Soviets to sound reasonable. And it will probably appeal to some West European allies of the United States, a number of whom are concerned that the Reagan administration's war of words against Moscow is going too far.
The administration must therefore be careful to make clear that it is not against the idea of a summit meeting in principle. In the meantime, the administration does not rule out the possibility of talks at a lower level with the Soviets, between Secretary of State Alexander Haig and soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, for instance.
For the public record, the Reagan administration has been careful in what it has said so far about the Brezhnev summit offer. White House press secretary James Brady said on Feb. 23 that President Reagan viewed the summit suggestion "with interest" but added that it was not unexpected.
Mr. Brandy indicated that the offer could be little more than a ploy, in keeping with a history of what he called Soviet "good guy, bad guy" tactics. State Department spokesman William Dyess said the Brezhnev proposal was "interesting" and was being studied.
The US has yet to reveal precisely how it will react to what it considers to be heavy Cuban involvement in El Salvador. It has provided additional military assistance to the El Salvador government but some sources say that the Salvadoran Army has about all the military aid and equipment it can absorb at the moment.
In a briefing last week to representatives of allied nations, Secretary Haig said the US was considering a wide range of options in order to achieve four aims:
1. Encourage reform in El Salvador.
2. End arms traffic to El Salvador from neighboring Nicaragua.
3. Cope with an alleged communist "disinformation" campaign aimed at portraying the revolutionary effort in El Salvador as distinctly apart from outside intervention.
4. Deal directly with that the administration considers to be the main source of the problem -- Cuba.
Secretary Haig has indicated that the US does not expect to deal with Cuba as it did with Vietnam, leaving an external sanctuary for guerrillas. In an ABC television appearance on Feb. 22, Edwin Meese III, counsel to President Reagan, said it was "entirely possible" that the US would take direct action against Cuba if arms shipments to the guerrillas did not stop. Mr. Meese added that one of the things the US should not do is rule out any action, something the new administration feels that President Carter did too often.President Reagan wants to keep America's foes guessing, Mr. Meese said.
In a lengthy white paper on El Salvador issued by the State Department on Feb. 23, the US charges that the political direction, organization, and arming of the Salvadoran insurgency are "coordinated and heavily influenced" by Cuba, with active support from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Vietnam, and other communist states.
The report says that a major effort has been made to provide "cover" for the effort by supplying arms of Western manufacture and by creating what it describes as a communist front organization, the Democratic Revolutionary Front, to seek noncommunist political support through propaganda.
The State Department's white paper says that Fidel Castro and the Cuban government played a "direct tutelary role" in late 1979 and early 1980 in bringing diverse Salvadoran guerrilla factions into a unified front and providing aid and advice in planning guerrilla military operations. Commitments were made, it says, to supply the guerrillas with 800 tons of the most modern weapons and equipment.
The paper says that nearly 200 tons were delivered, mostly through Cuba and Nicaragua, in preparation for the guerrillas' abortive "general offensive" of January of this year.