President Reagan now has a rare opportunity to take the controversial measures on El Salvador that will be necessary if there is to be any hope of restoring regional stability at acceptable cost. Precisely because of his longstanding reputation as a conservative anti-communist, he is in an excellent position to sell a peace settlement to both the American Congress and the Salvadoran junta. Who, after all, would be better able to persuade the latter that we are reallym serious about negotiations? In other words, the time is ripe for the "Zimbabwe option" in El Salvador, with the US promoting a peaceful settlement as Britain did in the Zimbabwe conflict.
The Salvadoran opposition now finds itself at a strategic crossroads. The guerrillas' January offensive failed to ignite the general uprising that had been hoped for.A military victory would require prolonged struggle. Even if successful, such a strategy would be devastating for all concerned. Nor is it clear that it would be successful. The US might well decide to intervene in mass. Thus opposition spokesmen have repeatedly indicated their interest in a negotiated resolution.
The question now is whether the US will respond with wisdom and courage to take advantage of these potentials or --as we did in Vietnam -- place our foreign policy hostage to a regime whose existence would be jeopardized by such a settlement. The administration's support of the present government against a right-wing coup is not enough. We must go further and make it clear that we will cut off all aid to any regime that comes to power by such means.
Simultaneously, the junta should be informed, through private diplomatic channels, that we will expect it to enter into serious negotiations with the opposition. We have the means to exert such influence through our military and economic aid, if we care to use them. The objective should be a cease-fire, followed by the formation of a transitional coalition government, including the left, to pave the way for internationally supervised elections in which allm political parties can compete, a la Zimbabwe, with the US committed to support whatever outcome the Salvadoran people might choose.
In the end, the Zimbabwe option may very well be our best way to prevent the internationalization and spread of the Salvadoran conflict throughout the entire region. It may also be our best chance of maintaining our influence, while limiting that of the Cubans and Soviets. Few developments would create more opportunities for the latter (through the supply of arms to the guerrillas, for instance) than the regionalization of fighting that would follow the continuing escalation of US military involvement.
In contrast, the Cubans and Soviets are at a distinct disadvantage in competing with the US via economic aid in times of peace. As long as regionalization can be avoided, we will be playing in a game in which the cards are stacked in our favor. This regardless of the ideological complexion of the regime that emerges from such a settlement.
What kind of government would emerge? Though predictions are hazardous, one anticipates a broad center-left coalition that would be neither inevitably guerrilla-dominated nor anti-American. (Such a government, after all, would continue to be dependent on massive US economic aid for its survival.) On the other hand, the longer we wait and the more the conflict intensifies, the more radicalized and anti-American the opposition will become. As popular support and military strength of the insurgents grow, so will their potential for dictating the country's future.
In short, the time to act is now. He who gets hurt will be he who has stalled.