The national debate over the Reagan administration's policy in El Salvador is escalating. Yet despite a well-organized opposition, the overall mood in the Congress and the country is such that both are expected to acquiesce in what President Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig are proposing for El Salvador.
As the debate heats up, leftist guerrillas began a new offensive against the military-civilian junta governing El Salvador. At issue is the question: Could El Salvador turn into another Vietnam?
President Reagan rejects the parallel. "The situation [in El Salvador] is, you might say, our front yard. . . . I think the situation is entirely different," he said at his March 6 news conference. "We do not foresee the need of American troops. . . . We're sending some 50-odd personnel for training. . . . We have such training squads in more than 30 countries today."
But, at almost the same time, Sen. Edward Kennedy was announcing that he and Sen. Paul Tsongas would be introducing legislation to recall the 50 or so US military advisers now in or on their way to El Salvador and to halt the planned administration meets certain conditions. Similar legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives last month by Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts.
In addition, a considerable body of US opinion within the churches (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) and organized labor seems to be against the Reagan administration's El Salvador policy. The feeling in these quarters is all the greater because of the murder of American nuns and trade- union representatives in El Salvador -- allegedly on orders by Salvadoran security forces. "US guns kill US nuns" was one of the signs carried in a protest demonstration in Los Angeles last week.
Church groups are lobbying actively on Capitol Hill against US military aid to El Salvador. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, the Rt. Rev. Msgr. James Hickey, has testified before a congressional subcommittee in the same direction.
Yet the mood in Congress and country still seems supportive of the administration.
Mr. Reagan's victory in the presidential election was due in part to public backing for the tougher line toward the Soviet Union and its surrogates he proposed. In other words, Americans seemed to be emerging from nearly a decade of passivity in foreign policy induced by the trauma of Vietnam. Consequently there is a certain irony that the Reagan administration's choice of El Salvador as the first place to be tough toward the Russians and the Cubans should stir anxiety about the US heading straight back to another Vietnam.
What worries Mr. Reagan's critics is that they see the sending of the US military advisers and initial installment of military aid to El Salvador as a repetition of the first undramatic US initiatives that led to later deep involvement in Vietnam. To the critics, another parallel (vigorously disputed by the administration) is that, as in Vietnam, US help is going to right-wingers ruthlessly contemptuous of local popular opinion and incapable of ever winning its support. The US, the critics charge, is once again making the mistake of using military means to deal with a problem for which the only effective solution is political.
The administration's retort to this is that there is, indeed, a political as well as a military level to the challenge in El Salvador. If the impression has grown that President Reagan and Secretary Haig were solely preoccupied with meeting the military threat from the left, administration spokesmen say it is because the situation in the wake of the leftist military offensive in early January was so precarious that crash action had to be taken to deal with it.
The leftists launched their original offensive Jan. 10. Their aim was presumably to present incoming President Reagan with a leftist victory as a fait accompli. They failed -- but it had been touch and go for a few days. By the end of that round of fighting, government forces were desperately short of ammunition and other equipment. President Carter decided to resume military aid , and President Reagan is in the process of increasing it.
According to the administration, the challenge of the leftist guerrillas had such punch early January because:
1. Their forces consist of between 3,500 and 4,000 regulars, of whom 1,200 to 1,500 officers and cadres have had up to eight months' training outside El Salvador, mainly in Cuba.
2. From mid-August 1980 onward, they began to receive arms supplies through channels arranged by the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other communist countries.
This does not satisfy critics. Why, they ask, is the Reagan administration not equally exercised by terrorism and murder from the extreme right in El Salvador? Why does it not bring the same urgent commitment to ensuring political and social reforms in El Salvador as it is applying to meeting the armed threat from the left? And would the administration be as opposed to an extreme right-wing takeover as it is to an extreme left-wing takeover?
Administration spokesmen challenge the implications of those questions and point to statements in the recent State Department "white paper" on El Salvador. "The government of El Salvador," says the white paper, ". . . faces armed opposition from the extreme right as well as from the left. . . . A symbiotic relationship has developed between the terrorism practiced by extremists of both left and right."
Since the beginning of this month, both President Reagan and Secretary Haig have been more outspokenly critical of the extreme right then they had before. On March 4, Haig said that a right-wing coup "is counter to the policies we have been implementing and pursuing in El Salvador, and such an outcome would have serious consequences on our ability to continue to pursue those policies." (Implicit in those words seems a threat to cut off US aid.)
At his March 6 news conference, Mr. Reagan said: "We're supporting a government [in El Salvador] which we believe has an intention of improving the society there, for the benefit of the people, and we're opposed to terrorism of the right or left. . . . It would be of the gravest concern to us if there were [a right-wing takeover]." The President declined to say specifically whether such a coup would result in an aid cutoff.
Two things happened last week that may have brought home to administration the threat from the right.
The first of these was a news conference held in San Salvador by extreme right-winger Robert D'Aubisson, whom the Salvadoran government has ordered police to arrest. Major D'Aubisson claimed to have been in touch with US officials since Mr. Reagan's inauguration and to be convinced that the new US administration would not object to a right-wing coup.
The second of the events was an attack on US Embassy in San Salvador. Acting Ambassador Frederic L. Chapin said: "The incident has all the hallmarks of a D'Aubisson operation. Let me state to you that we o ppose coups and we have no intention of being intimidated."