Signs are appearing of a behind-the-scenes debate within the Reagan administration about finding alternatives to "drawing the line" in El Salvador. The present tough policy was launched with a flourish early this year. Secretary of State Alexander Haig described the Salvadoran civil war as "a textbook case of communist aggression" and spoke of "drawing the line" there to establish United States credibility in standing up to the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Today, however, the administration's policy is bogged down in stalemate -- politically and militarily. And the idea of some form of compromise solution no longer seems to be quite so rigorously ruled out.
An unnamed administration official has been quoted as saying that President Reagan this week raised with Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte -- who has been visiting Washington -- the possibility of a Mexican role in negotiating an end to the civil war. That would imply administration acceptance of another way out than US-backed military victory for the right-wing Salvadoran government over leftist guerillas.
But having originally made El Salvador so demonstrably a test of US resolve and credibility, the administration could have problems explaining a radical change of US policy.
This week, for instance, Mr. Haig made brief references to communist misdeeds when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Specifically, he singled out the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. But, discretion presumably being the better part of valor, he did not mention El Salvador.
As early as mid-July, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas O. Enders gave a sign of a change. He told a Washington audience, "What I would like to talk about today: a political solution. For just as the conflict was Salvadoran in its origin so its ultimate resolution must be Salvadoran."
When the right-wing military junta took over in 1979, and Mr. Duarte has become a front for a tough military cabal intent on preserving its privileges.
The left has its men of violence too, in the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Allied with them is the mainly civilian Democratic Revolutionary Front. Its titular head is Guillermo Ungo, a Scoial Democrat who liek the Christian Democrat Mr. Duarte, has sound democratic credentials. They were on the same winning ticket in the country's last free election in 1972 -- but the military kept them office.
Some feel Ungo is as much a leftist front as Duarte is a rightist front.
Leftist guerrillas tried to present incoming President Reagan with a fait accompli by ousting the junta at the end of the Carter era. Government forces barely held on.
This led Mr. Carter to resume military aid to El Salvador as one of the last acts of his administration. One of Mr. Reagan's earliest decisions was to beef up tht help.
This year the US has sent in 51 military advisers, of whom between 25 and 30 are still there, 14 utility helicopters. US military aid for the fiscal year 1981 totaled $35.4 million, and economic aid, $144 million. The figures before Congress for the fiscal year 1982, beginning OcT. 1, are $26 million in military aid and $87.7 million in economic aid.
Yet the junta is no closer to victory.
President Duarte, with US backing, plans elections for a constituent assembly in March of next year. But is difficult to see how the election can have meaning or be completely free if a civil war is still raging.
This situation explains the frequency with which the word "negotiation" keeps coming up. France and Mexico jointly proposed this course last month. But France and Mexico alone are probably unacceptable as middlemen because Salvadorans see them as sympathizing with the left.
European socialist parties have backed their fellow Social Democrat, Mr. Ungo. European and Latin american Christian Democratis are equally firm in their backing of their fellow Christian Democrat, Mr. Duarte.
Could a joint Christian Democrat-Social Democrat initiative win acceptance?