Vietnam, El Salvador, and US foreign policy

Is the United States likely to repeat in El Salvador some of the outrages, horrors, and tragedies of Vietnam?

I should state at the outset that I do not consider our goal to be ''moral'' foreign policy per se. What we must seek is a wise policy--one which is at the same time realistic (in the sense of adapted to existing and, however regrettably, power-oriented realities), prudential, rational, and moral. A wise policy in that sense will have little to do with absolute ethical standards; it is not synonymous with perfection but minimalist in nature and will seek to achieve the best possible under the circumstances.

At a minimum, wise policy will strive to avoid adding to existing tragedy, even if in doing so it violates abstract principles of ''reason of state'' often dredged up in the remote, depersonalized scenarios concocted by statesmen. Translated, this means that the US should not seek to save the Salvadorans from themselves by contributing to the destruction of their country even if US Assistant Secretary Thomas Enders and others perceive the fighting there as ''the decisive battle for Central America'' against Marxism-Leninism.

Vietnam was an appalling disaster for the US, from the consequences of which we still suffer. Our decisionmakers piled misper-ceptions upon misperceptions. Above all, they were unable to recognize that the aggression they feared represented in the local (and the only relevant) context of values a liberating force, and that the alleged freedom they supported represented a sham. No wonder that, as a people, we should look with the utmost suspicion upon any foreign adventure promising to re-engage us in a remote peasant people's revolutionary guerrilla war.

Yet the lessons of Vietnam are not that US security is never threatened in obscure guerrilla wars, or that US power should never be engaged in the poor countries of the third world, or that interventionism is always or fundamentally immoral. For example, US intervention to rescue the hostages in Iran, though it was tried too late and it failed, was not immoral in the least; had it succeeded , it might have alleviated the immense sense of frustration in foreign affairs which Americans have felt since Vietnam and which has contributed in no small measure to a growing US nationalism.

The US is a superpower with huge interests in Central America and as such it is entitled to make choices there, and by appropriate political, economic, and military means to assist friendly and (hopefully) congenial leadership or ruling groups to preserve their status and power against the assault of militant revolutionary movements determined to destroy them. By ''congenial,'' I mean similarly oriented in terms of basic human and political values. The issue, then , is not one of interventionism per se - or else it would be wrong to intervene anywhere, such as in Poland or in South Africa on behalf of human rights - but one of the character of the leadership we decide to support.

For US policy to be wise, and to obtain the necessary public support over the long haul, the leadership of choice abroad will at a minimum have to demonstrate that it is bound to norms of behavior, and that it stands for the effective implementation of values, acceptable both to the Salvadoran and to the American people as well as to world public opinion as a whole. We must not forget that it is precisely on these grounds that the Diem and successor regimes ultimately failed us in Vietnam. They failed us when they became perceived as repressive, tyrannical forces or as empty institutional and administrative shells incapable of projecting political content beyond that of armed force.

Vietnam taught us that global approaches and global theories of interlinkage do not work, that each case must be regarded on its own merits. To support the junta in El Salvador simply out of some revived domino theory conviction, or on the faulty premise that Cuban, Soviet or other external aid will tilt the balance, is likely to prove as ephemeral there as it did in Southeast Asia.

Part of the reason is that masses of people in our late 20th-century world will no longer allow statesmen to pursue abstract ends of state policy, divorced from the realities of human life and beings. Behind every imaginary scenario of US (or other) state leaders lie towns in flames, children dying, and flesh-and-blood leaders seeking media attention. And the media, as in Vietnam before, will portray it all.

In the longer run, the Salvadoran people will no more tolerate and uphold the junta if its forces behave like psychopathic killers than they would tolerate or legitimize the guerrillas if the latter behaved similarly. Nor would the American people allow our leaders to continue supporting a demonstrably wrong cause over the long run in El Salvador, no matter what the declared imperatives of state policy. That, indeed, is the central lesson of Vietnam.

Accordingly, for US policy to be wise or become wiser, the most important thing is the careful weighing and judging of all the local factors--a judgment not easily engaged in in Washington but perhaps better left to the real experts in the field. As I understand it, even the present successor group of American experts in El Salvador, who replaced those unceremoniously yanked out for not at once falling in with the administration's prejudgments (much as happened before in Vietnam), is currently doubtful that the junta, apparently dominated by its security forces and its hard right, is demonstrating acceptable norms of behavior, or capable of doing so despite President Duarte's best efforts.

Under the circumstances, wouldn't the wisest policy be one in which the US used all means at its disposal, including the provision of economic and military aid and the threat of direct military intervention, to persuade and if necessary compel the junta leaders to negotiate a new political order with their opponents? Even if they could be held under free and fair conditions, which at present seems most unlikely, elections are not the only or even an indispensable means to this end.

As in Vietnam some 15 years ago, negotiated settlement in the form of a coalition regime, even if reached without elections, would do much toward restoring peace, order, and sanity; above all it would put an earlier end to the wanton killing. And while the US should play a major role in promoting a political settlement, the participation of key Latin American states such as Mexico and Venezuela, and their cooperation in formulating and guaranteeing it, would seem to be essential to its success.

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