El Salvador: a peace worth winning right

The President's address to Congress on Central America, with its new commitment to dialogue and negotiations on a broad range of issues, argues for his being given a chance - and for being held to his word. The eloquence of his address should not, however, cause us to relax our concern about the direction of his policies or distract us from the fact that El Salvador has become exactly what his administration intended it to be - a critical test of United States foreign policy. Regrettably, it is a test we have been failing.

The centerpiece of the Reagan strategy has been the futile pursuit of a military victory by the reluctant Salvadorean Army over the guerrillas. Despite considerable American investment in this strategy - half a billion dollars in military assistance since 1979 - and the threat of deepening direct military involvement on our part, the objective of a military victory remains as elusive and as illusory as ever. More important, a military victory offers little hope for a durable solution to the conflict.

Our national self-interest lies in the encouragement of a stable, democratic government capable of promoting economic development and withstanding the intervention of neighbors and communist bloc alike. Continued investment in a military course of action will only increase polarization and disorder and strengthen the hand of communism. Moreover, our persistent support for a government which remains indifferent to human rights violations belies our stated concern for justice and democracy and diminishes our influence.

It is time to set a sensible strategy in motion. This means turning attention from the pursuit of an unattainable goal to a policy that actually works and therefore addresses the US national interest. We should start by recognizing the indigenous roots of the conflict. The current situation reflects decades of economic deprivation and political and social injustice. The history of chronic repression and unrest has been reinforced in recent years by the emergence of right-wing death squads and a left-wing guerrilla movement, which have both contributed to the continuing cycle of violence. The moderate political leadership and the political middle ground have been the major casualties of these events. Their restoration and the construction of a national consensus are fundamental requirements for the recovery and stability of El Salvador.

We should immediately support negotiations among all parties within El Salvador and accept the assistance of friends such as Costa Rica and Venezuela, who understand the area's problems and share our concern. We should simultaneously do whatever is necessary to encourage the discussions undertaken by the nations of the region to explore strategies for achieving peace in Central America. The potential benefits from a negotiated settlement which reconstructs the political center at the expense of the political extremes are clearly preferable to a continuation of the present bloody impasse. Military assistance should be continued both to prevent sending the wrong signal and to give the President his chance. However, such assistance must take place alongside the serious pursuit of a political and military truce. As a practical matter, both sides in the conflict must be persuaded that negotiations leading to fair and secure elections and the achievement of political stability are preferable to the costs of continued strife.

Moving up the national elections from March 1984 to December 1983 will not put an end to the fighting and restore civil order. The elections must be timely and honest. But more than that, they must be fully representative, secure, and fair. Although they are invited to take part, the guerrillas and the political organizations allied with them are not likely to come in from the cold unless they have a hand in shaping the electoral process and can be offered believable assurances as to its security and fairness. We can hardly deny the reality of their fears, given the selective reprisals following the election for the constituent assembly in March 1982 and the deplorable record of the Salvadorean government in controlling wanton violence against the civilian population and in bringing offenders to justice.

For this reason, a truce, in the course of which assassination, destruction of property, and armed atacks by both sides are contained and curtailed, would benefit from the participation and supervision of an inter-American or multinational task force consisting of nations such as Venezuela, Panama, and Spain, which are recognized as neutral by both sides. The task force would serve as an essential stabilizing force during a process in which disarmament and amnesty can be implemented and secure elections prepared. The participation of the guerrillas in the implementation of the truce and the preparations for the elections is necessary in that the dissidents are most likely to support a process in which they have developed a stake.

We have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the US can unilaterally impose its preferred solution on El Salvador and create democracy at gunpoint. Resistance to US desires and plans seems to be the one thing the Salvadorean military and the guerrillas have in common. Pursuit of the present course of action for the ensuing 10 years believed necessary by the administration to achieve its goal will, at the present rate, cost many thousands more lives, at least another billion dollars, and potentially greater direct US military involvement - with the prospects of success as doubtful as ever.

It is time we stopped exhausting our strategies of last resort to give peace a chance. The willful reduction of our choices to commitment of troops or military defeat is unnecessary and contrary to our best national interest. The military focus of the Reagan policy has been creating the very situation that it was intended to prevent, and time is running out. While reasonable grounds of discussion are rapidly eroding, we can and must move to contribute meaningfully to the security of the entire area by coming out of the corner into which we have painted ourselves.

There is an alternative to the force of arms, and that is diplomacy. And there is an alternative to our embattled isolation on this issue among our allies in the hemisphere, and that is support for both regional and bilateral discussions and active support for the efforts of the Latin American nations promoting them. However, the purchase of time achieved on this immediate issue will be wasted and our national interest poorly served unless we address the area's enduring problems - poverty, repression, and neglect - in a consistent manner, and put behind us the wasteful and dangerous vacillation between crisis and complacency that has characterized our behavior to date.

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