''Intimidation'' seems now to have become a recognized United States objective in the deployment of military power, particularly in Central America. Those policymakers who believe that a substantial US military presence or ''show of force'' can force a smaller country to adopt policies more compatible with US interests are now in the ascendancy. They represent those who have, in the past, expressed bitter opposition to the constraints placed on the use of military power in revolutionary situations in the developing world.
At the moment they believe they have the basis in Central America for claiming that the policy of ''intimidation'' works. More conciliatory statements have been heard in both Nicaragua and Cuba. The flow of arms into El Salvador has apparently slowed down. And the ''show of force'' has not been met by anti-American demonstrations in friendly countries or by persistent diplomatic protests.
Yet the administration remains frustrated by the lack of broad public and congressional recognition of these ''successes.'' At least part of the reason lies in the continued nagging questions that flow from a posture of ''intimidation.''
Who is the enemy? Military deployments, to be credible, must carry the threat that the forces will be used, if necessary. The public generally accepts deployments in areas where the forces of the Soviet Union are also deployed. That is not the case at present in Central America. It is difficult to avoid the implication that US forces are to be used for local interventions, unpopular at home and unpopular in the region. The protracted maneuvers thus represent a dimension much beyond that of helping local governments with advisers and equipment, a dimension not yet clearly explained to the American public or, perhaps, to our allies.
Intimidation for what? There are those who argue that the true objectives of such a policy should remain vague in order to keep our adversaries guessing. Are we merely trying to stop the flow of arms? Do we need a massive armada or US troops in Honduras to do that? Do we intend to supplant the Sandinista regime? Can we guarantee that those who might take over will be more friendly or more malleable? Do we genuinely fear an introduction of Soviet or Cuban combat troops into the region? How will the military show of force help resolve the basic social and economic issues that underlie the unrest? The public is not fully satisfied with uncertain responses to these questions.
And for how long? It is always easier to start a demonstration of power than to stop it. When will the maneuvers end? Must we wait for all objectives to be met? What kind of signal will be given in the area when we cease the maneuvers without achieving all our objectives? Or are we now contemplating a prolonged stepped-up presence on land, sea, and air in Central America?
And at what cost? Quite apart from the budgetary implications, have the policy-makers studied the effect of these deployments on our commitments elsewhere - in areas closer to the Soviet Union? Have Japan and our NATO allies been fully consulted? On a different plane, what are the underlying psychological and political costs in a continent that has been subjected to intimidation in the past and has deeply resented the results? Are we providing grounds for stepped-up rather than reduced military buildups in Cuba and Nicaragua?
Negotiations for what? If our objective is to force Cuba, Nicaragua, and the El Salvador rebels to the negotiating table, what will be negotiated and in what sort of atmosphere? Are we prepared to place our old and new military deployments on a negotiating table? Political leaders of sovereign countries find it difficult to make concessions in the face of outside pressures. Would negotiators in Central America be any different?
What if? Not long ago a US naval vessel stopped a Soviet freighter. Our presence there runs the risk of additional encounters. In the context of our total relations with the Soviet Union, is this wise or necessary? What if the Soviets should begin escorting vessels to Nicaragua? Are we prepared for the political and military consequences of a progressive escalation or confrontation in that area?
Most people who follow the issue in the US will agree that the establishment of another major military presence under the control of the Soviet Union in Central America would be against basic US interests. Most people, also, are prepared to give the President the benefit of the doubt in his judgments. Many, however, have the uncomfortable feeling that a policy of declared ''intimidation'' moves the US away from dealing with the realities of these small, tortured countries. Americans want to be respected as part of a strong but sensitive power. Not everyone among us wants the US to become the ''bully on the block.''