Arms for El Salvador

Balance and calm are needed in weighing the United States role in El Salvador. To suggest that President Reagan's policy of providing more military aid to the ruling junta there is reminiscent of the Vietnam war is grossly misleading and exaggerated. It would be unfortunate if that hapless experience ruled out forever any thought of US military involvement abroad of undermined America's will to act forcefully to defend its legitimate interests and to stand up to Soviet ambitions of subversion and revolution around the world. While there are dangers of self-delusion in putting every international problem in the context of an East-West confrontation, there are also dangers of naivete in not recognizing the Soviet (and Cuban) hand in many areas of turmoil and conflict.

In this instance there seems to be more than abundant evidence of Soviet mischief virtually in the United States' backyard, and the administration's determination to do something about it is reasonable. Despite his strong words, Mr. Reagan does not appear to be acting in an excessive way. He is asking for 20 more US military advisers (which would bring the total military contingent in El Salvador to 54) and $25 million in military equipment. That is a relatively modest request. The American people also have the State Department's assurances that the US advisers "will not accompany Salvadoran armed forces outside their garrison areas or partipate in any combat operations."

To say this is not to fail to see the risks in the situation. Of course Americans ought to be concerned whenever US military personnel are committed overseas, especially where there is a local insurgency. Senator John Glenn warns that the advisers would become targets for guerrilla attack -- and, indeed , what would happen if an American officer were killed? The administration cannot ignore either the voices of the West Europeans and of such Latin American countries as Venezuela and Mexico (and even military-ruled Brazil and Argentina) cautioning against US armed intervention. There is also the respected opinion of former US envoy to El Salvador Robert White who says that extensive new military aid would be a "grave mistake" that might bolster right-wing Salvadoran elements opposed to a political solution.

Herein will lie the test of evolving US policy. It would be sheer madness to pursue a solution to the insurgency problem through military means alone. The military aid would be meant solely to enable the Salvadoran government to stem the flow of communist arms into the country and to train the Salvadoran Army while the government got on with the most critical task -- economic and social reform. Unless the US throws its full weight behind such reform -- and encourages a political settlement of the conflict -- no amount of arms or advisers will win over the populace.

Reports that the administration is considering an emergency aid package of over $200 million, including help from the International Monetary Fund, are encouraging in this respect. If the US wants to avoid using force itself to crush the guerrillas (and it could of course easily do so), it has to be willing to sustain a short- and long-term economic program. Further land reform, for instance, will be costly because former landowners must be compensated. Even Salvadoran President Duarte stresses that economic, more than military, help is what is most needed now. Without such help, and such reform, it will be impossible to convince the long-exploited and brutalized Salvadoran people that the present government indeed serves their interests.

And, speaking of brutality, it is clear that nothing can be accomplished if the killing (most of it by right-wing elements) is not ended. In fact one argument cited by the administration for sending US professionals to El Salvador is to train the Salvadoran soldiers to be more disciplined and stop shooting at peasants. With more US advisers on the spot it would have more leverage. That is the theory, at any rate, and we trust the administration is right (although we wonder why it could not send civilian technicians rather than military advisers). In this connection, vigorous efforts should also be made to stop the activities of wealthy Salvadoran families in Miami who are financing the right-wing "death squads" in El Salvador which have been slaying agrarian reform technicians and other political moderates. The resources of the extreme right should be cut off no less than those of the extreme left.

President Reagan and his secretary of state surely realize that sending American advisers into El Salvador also hazards making that tiny country look like a vassal of the United States. That is the last image the US should want to project. Unfortunately, the public rhetoric so far has left the impression that the new administration, even though it talks of economic reform, is more interested in sending a signal of toughness to the Russians than in responding to the Salvadoran people's desperation and yearnings for social and economic justice. Since Moscow is impressed not by what Washington says but by what it does -- and since Latin Americans are extremely sensitive to a militantly anti-Soviet and anti-Cuban US posture -- the United States would achieve the same ends and stir up less criticism by adopting a more low-key profile in El Salvador, stressing economic and political rather than military action.

It all comes down to whether the US wants to be seen primarily as being "against" something or -- far more effective morally and politically -- standing positively for some thing. We would choose the latter.

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