The national debate on El Salvador - like so much of recent foreign policy - is based on vague or erroneous conceptions of America's vital interests. The administration calls for ''drawing the line'' against communist-inspired terrorism, while doves fear another Vietnam. Neither side has presented compelling arguments based on an appropriate national strategy. Why? Because we don't have one. Without a strategy that identifies national priorities and places potential threats in perspective, bad ideas persist and myths go unchallenged.
This is surprising, because the basic premises of such a strategy used to be clear to us. As Walter Lippmann and George Kennan both explained, we want to prevent any single power from dominating the resources of industrial Eurasia. Such an empire would control enough resources, industrial strength, and population to pose a significant threat. We joined with the Soviet Union to prevent this in World War II, and our present commitments to NATO, Japan, and the People's Republic of China follow from this principle.
Second, we want to preserve Western access to oil from the Middle East. This gives us a major interest in helping bring stability to this region. The rest of the world is of marginal strategic importance. Much nonsense has been written about raw materials dependence. Contrary to popular belief, our dependence on resources other than oil is minimal, because the question is not how much we import. We import raw materials because that is cheap, not because that is the only alternative. Because the potential sources are numerous, and because stockpiling or substituting is feasible, our real dependence is slight.
With these principles established, the myths that dominate our foreign policy and inspire our present involvement in Central America become obvious.
The first myth states that it is only America's toughness that prevents our allies from defecting to the Soviet side. We must be resolute, we are told, or our allies won't trust us. Yet examples of this kind of ''bandwagoning'' are hard to find. Throughout history, the important states have combined to oppose aggressors rather than join forces with them. If we appear less bellicose than the Soviet Union - a task that should be easy - attracting support for our two strategic goals (keeping Eurasia divided and the Middle East open) should be simple.
Credible commitments rest upon common interests, and are not enhanced by unleashing military force on weaker countries. Providing military support to the regime in El Salvador does nothing to enhance our credibility in areas of legitimate concern. Instead, we appear as aggressive as the Soviet Union. The world knows we are strong. We would do well to convince them we are wise.
The second myth is that of ''Soviet geopolitical momentum.'' The balance sheet suggests otherwise. In the last 10 years, the Soviets have improved their position in: Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mozambique, Grenada, Libya, Chad, South Yemen, Angola, Cape Verde, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua. Total population: 136 million. Total GNP: $35 billion.
The Soviets have lost ground substantially in: China, Egypt, Sudan, Indonesia , Somalia, Iraq, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, and Jamaica. Total population: 1.25 billion. Total GNP: $450 billion. Soviet relations with most European communists, Japan, and the nonaligned movement have never been worse. From a global perspective, the Russians are losing.
The third myth states that providing arms guarantees political control. By such logic, every guerrilla with a Kalashnikov assault rifle is a reliable agent of the Kremlin. This myth justifies Secretary of State Haig's concern over the sources of weapons in El Salvador. But providing arms didn't give the Soviets reliable influence in Yugoslavia, Egypt, Somalia, China, or Zimbabwe, to name but a few examples. In general, you can't buy a third world politician, and it's even hard to rent him.
The fourth myth - once almost dead and buried - is that all leftists follow Moscow's lead. This myth calls for us to resist anyone with ''Marxist' leanings.
Once again, this myth violates the evidence. Disputes between communist regimes are among the world's most dangerous conflicts. The rifts between the Kremlin and such figures as Tito, Mao, Togliatti, Mugabe, Berlinguer, Carrillo, and Pol Pot demolish the myth of Marxist solidarity. Where communists remain loyal to Moscow (e.g., Vietnam, Cuba) US policy played a large role. And Gulf continues to pump oil from Marxist Angola, protected against guerrilla raids by Cuban troops.
Finally, our historical ignorance fuels these misconceptions. We forget how extensively we have dominated Latin America for the past century, and we do not recognize the sources of the opposition we now observe. Rightly or wrongly, we are perceived as the chief supporters of authoritarian repression. Because we do not see how this historical legacy prompts revolutionary activity and hostility to the US. We conclude that instability in Latin America must be the result of ''imported'' revolution. The French made the same mistake when they blamed their troubles in Algeria on Nasser.
This instability is not being imported from Nicaragua, Cuba, or the Soviet Union. It is the native population seizing an opportunity to strike at a social order that has denied them all the basic values that the US has long cherished. It is a myth to blame this on Moscow, regardless of who makes or supplies some of the weapons being used in the civil war.
The recent elections in El Salvador, even if we accept the results as fair and accurate, provide little cause for optimism and no support for our current policy. Do the results mean that the fighting will stop? No. Will the election produce a government dedicated to meaningful reforms? Not if the right-wing majority coalition has its way. Do the elections in any way increase El Salvador's intrinsic strategic value? Of course not. The American dilemma remains the same; to stake our national prestige and taxpayer's dollars on an unstable and unsavory regime, or to seek a negotiated solution. One would think the choice would be obvious.
The rebels, even if successful, will not be tools of the Kremlin. If the history of the cold war shows us anything, it is how the Soviet Empire expands. It does not expand via national revolution but by the jackboot of the Red Army. Every rifle or mortar sent to El Salvador can't be used in the Middle East or along the Central Front in Europe.
If we want to send a message to Moscow, providing more support to the Afghan rebels is a more appropriate step. Soviet expansion via Soviet troops should be opposed.