The confusion over Central America

In creating the bipartisan commission on Central America, the President said its task would be to help develop a consensus on a long-term policy for the region.

That, of course, was the purpose of his address to Congress in April. Declaring that ''the national security of all the Americas is at stake in Central America,'' he called for bipartisan support for a four-pronged program for the area (democratic reform; economic development; security assistance; and negotiation).

But that effort did not succeed in achieving either consensus or a clear policy.

The present course does not command general support. Congress is deeply split. It has provided funding grudgingly and conditionally. And opinion polls show a public uninformed, skeptical, and fearful of a repeat of Vietnam. Only 8 percent know which side the US supports in both El Salvador and Nicaragua; and only 6 percent consider themselves well-informed. Only about 1 in 3 approves of aid and advisers for El Salvador and, of these, only one-sixth are firm in their support. Aid for the Nicaraguan ''contras'' is favored by just 25 percent, with only about one-fifth of these firm. And US troops for El Salvador, even as a last resort, are opposed by 3 to 1.

On Tuesday the President blamed the press coverage for the lack of support. But the reasons lie elsewhere.

First is the low confidence in the policy process and doubts that decisions are being made by qualified and competent officials. The sudden firing of able professionals like Ambassador Hinton and Assistant Secretary Enders some weeks ago was unsettling. It was hardly reassuring that Judge Clark and UN Ambassador Kirkpatrick appeared to be supplanting Secretary Shultz and his advisers.

Second, the policy itself seems confused. What is our true objective in Nicaragua? Is it merely to stop that regime from supplying arms to the guerrillas in El Salvador? Or is it also to force the Sandinistas to honor their initial promises of democracy, pluralism, and human rights? Or do we really seek to overthrow the regime, as do the US-backed contras, many of whom were in the Somoza national guard?

Now the extensive ground and naval exercises in the region are presented as routine, though obviously meant to intimidate Nicaragua. Naturally the ambiguity scares the home folks, too. Last week the Sandinista leaders offered to negotiate about arms supplies, foreign advisers, and support for insurgency - as proposed by the April speech and by the Contadora group of Latin American presidents. Will that be pursued as assiduously as the military measures?

In El Salvador, critics fear that the character of the regime may doom it to ultimate failure. Reagan describes it as democratic and reformist. Critics see it dominated by military leaders who are corrupt and closely linked to a reactionary oligarchy which resists reform. Its death squads have murdered some 2,500 civilians in the last six months. Yet our commitment to its survival is so total as to deprive us of leverage over abuses which can only strengthen the guerrillas.

Third, and most basic, is the failure to discriminate among our interests and the threats to them. According to Reagan, failure to defeat the threats in Nicaragua and El Salvador will so imperil US vital interests as to undermine our credibility and our alliances and jeopardize our homeland. Too many find that grossly overblown.

If the Soviet Union sought to establish bases, facilities, or forces in Central America, that could pose a significant threat to our security, and should certainly be prevented. But the existence of a Marxist regime in a tiny nation of 2.6 million or its current activities hardly rise to that level. We may determine to oppose it and its efforts to subvert its neighbors, but we should keep it in perspective.

And our actions should be adapted accordingly. We can make quite clear to the Soviet Union and Cuba that we will not tolerate any bases or facilities in Central America and will use necessary force to prevent that. Congress and the public would surely understand and support that position.

But US interest in preventing local subversion or assistance to guerrillas is of a different order. For many reasons regional measures in cooperation with Latin American states are better for that purpose than unilateral action. And if Nicaragua would refrain from efforts to export revolution, should it not be treated like other dictatorships in the area?

The task of the commission will be to clarify our various interests and relate them realistically to suitable means. In particular, it should focus on programs for coping with the basic sources of insecurity and instability - economic, social, and political - which are indigenous to these nations. And it should try to put Central America in the larger context of Latin America and its major states of Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and others.

The administration should not await the report of the commission to correct some of the shortcomings in its current approach. Indeed it must do so promptly if it hopes to generate the congressional and public support essential for a steady course.

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