Remember El Salvador?

The United States government will have to make more of President Duarte's visit than it has done so far if it wants to seem as crucially concerned about El Salvador as it once was. The administration pulled out all the stops when it broached military aid and military solutions to the Salvadoran conflict as part of the East-West struggle. Lessened overt vigor has accompanied Washington's emphasis on the goal of political solution. Now, having met with Mr. Duarte this week, President Reagan and State Department officials could take the opportunity to show strong support -- in keeping with the initial US enthusiasm -- for the political approach stressed by the Salvadoran visitor himself.

Indeed, Mr. Duarte asserts that the rulers of El Salvador already had the military situation in hand before US military aid began to arrive this year. Since then it has been a process of "consolidation." Though his advisers were discussing requests for technical equipment, he was in the US not primarily to seek aid but to plead for moral support in trying to bring democracy to his country. He would not go along with the urgings of France and Mexico to negotiate with the guerrillas who he said were supported by and through Cuba and Nicaragua. But he would talk with political opposition forces even in advance of March's scheduled election if they were prepared to join the democratic enterprise.

The difficulties in such a scenario are frequently pointed out. The guerrillas have reportedly been making gains that do not dispose them to lay down their arms for the sake of negotiation. The nonviolent opposition is said to be worried about retaliation, with elections rigged as before. The Salvadoran President himself, whose title comes from his appointed leadership of the ruling junta, is thought to have little power except as conferred by his US backing. The volatility of the situation is inidcated by his comment that sometimes the major threat to the government is from the right, as he said it was in midsummer, and sometimes from the left, as he says it is now.

But the junta chief insists that progress has been achieved in curbing the widely publicized violence of security forces. To take his US appearances at face value, which long-time critics would not necessarily do, he is a man sincerely concerned with helping his country share in the democratic values he came to know during previous experience in the United States. Is the US itself equally concerned about El Salvador in this sense rather than as a kind of cold-war pawn to be spotlighted when it suits Washington's purposes? The answer will depend on the administration's response to an objective assessment of Salvadoran events, including the Duarte trip with its moral plea.

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