Fresh US wind in Central America

A noteworthy change has taken place in the public posture of the United States with respect to Central America. Early on, it will be recalled, the Reagan administration elevated the guerrilla war in El Salvador to center stage of US foreign policy. Alarms were raised about the flow of Cuban and Soviet arms and it seemed that Washington was spoiling for an East-West confrontation.

Today the harsh rhetoric - and Alexander Haig - are gone and the administration has adopted the lower profile long recommended by experienced Latin America hands. There are a number of encouraging signs. In August US Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders delivered a a speech on Central America marked by its moderate, nonconfronta-tional tone. He told his San Francisco audience that he saw ''very positive signs'' and ''opportunities for reconciliation'' in Central America.

More recently, the US joined eight Latin American countries in endorsing the setting up of organizations to promote peace and democracy in Central America. And this week came a report that President Reagan has responded with ''great interest'' to a Mexican-Venezuelan proposal for talks to resolve differences between Nicaragua and Honduras.

Whether all this reflects a fundamental change in the substance of US policy is not yet clear. But it does suggest that the Reagan administration may have concluded that the United States cannot win on the battlefield, even with moderate increases in military aid, and that with all the other problems in the world to contend with it does not want to get bogged down in a Central American quagmire. In short, it may be looking for some other way out of the growing political turmoil.

Take El Salvador. State Department officials now say that, while the guerrilla war may go on for several more years, it is no longer winnable. They speak of encouraging the parties allied with the guerrillas to join in the political process. Since such resonances are also coming from the Salvadoran government, the possibility arises that El Salvador may be on the road to coping with the guerrilla challenge.

Words of caution are in order, however. The military tide has not yet turned in El Salvador. The parties associated with the guerrillas may wish to participate in the political process but are not thought likely to disavow the insurgents. In the government, meanwhile, a split is developing between the army and the right-wing ARENA party which controls the Constituent Assembly and which is strongly opposed to the land reform. This could further polarize the country.

Elsewhere in Central America a certain US ambivalence is evident. Despite the expression of interest in a negotiated settlement of the Nicaraguan-Honduran dispute, for example, the US is suspected of providing covert aid for the anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan guerrillas in Honduras. And, according to the former chief of the US mission in Havana, the administration has exaggerated the evidence on Cuban arms shipments to El Salvador and is resistant to starting a dialogue with Cuba.

Therefore it remains unclear whether the administration is now simply muting its rhetoric while keeping its options open, or whether there is a genuine desire to find political solutions to the welter of conflicts raging in the region. Secretary of State Shultz, preoccupied with other issues, may not yet know himself what direction US policy should take. But, insofar as the marked change of tone reflects his moderating hand and holds out promise of a policy based less on military solutions than regional political accommodations, it is a hopeful development.

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