''Americans won't go into tunnels if there's no light at the end of them,'' says John R. Silber, a member of President Reagan's bipartisan Commission on Central America. ''What irritates Americans more than anything else is being told that we have a problem but we don't have a solution.''
One of the trademarks of the Reagan administration has been its use of bipartisan commissions to forge a national consensus on complex problems that are political in nature and appear to have no solution.
By all accounts, the recently appointed Commission on Central America is the one that faces the most difficult task of consensus building yet. Its 12-member panel, headed by Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, will look into whatever issues touching the region it chooses, including the controversy over US military involvement in the area. Its report is due in February.
With US Navy forces off both coasts of Central America, ground forces conducting maneuvers in Honduras, and a CIA-backed insurgency in Nicaragua, many Americans appear to feel that the US is entering one of the lightless tunnels to which Dr. Silber refers.
''I think the report of the commission may provide an alternative for the American people, at least for those who are the elected representatives of the American people, that will enable them in a finite length of time to find an objective assessment of this issue that can be helpful to them,'' he says.
Known for his often strong, independent, and sometimes controversial positions on education issues, Silber is a lifetime Democrat. In a lengthy interview, the president of Boston University and former philosophy professor explained what he sees as his role on the commission and what he hopes it will accomplish. Some excerpts:
A central role for the commission is to break through rigid positions, educate the public, and offer not just a single answer but a matrix of answers that address the complexity of that region. How will this be accomplished?
In the work of the commission there is a great deal of scholarship involved. There is a great deal of investigation of sources, of opinions, a gathering of data, a gathering of statements and opinions from one side and another. In some cases, from about six or seven different sides. Finally, there will be a recommendation for action.
We can't get political action in this country on a problem that can't be solved in less than six years. What I worry about more than anything else on this commission is that if we don't come up with a solution - that is, a two-year, four-year, or a six-year solution - we won't get any support at all out of Congress.
One of the first things we have to do is to try to educate the Congress to the fact that there are some solutions that require a generation. Maybe 25 years , maybe 30 years. If we have to have congressional support for a consistent set of steps, following through on a policy that cannot reach its fulfillment in less than a full generation, it means that we're going to have to get a vote out of congressmen and senators that won't have any great results in terms of their election.
What access to information will you have?
It's enormous. I have about four feet of it right now that I've been working through, and I spent last week working slowly through about one foot of what I have to read. Reading one whole foot of documents is several thousand pages, and I've read it closely, marked it, and I've been taking notes on it, indexing it, and know a lot about it.
Among other people who have corresponded with me since I was appointed to the commission have been various religious groups. Mr. Fidel Castro has seen fit to send me a copy of his book and a personal letter. I'm sure he's sent it to the other members of the commission. The access to information is virtually unlimited.
One of the thorniest issues seems to be to determine where our vital interests are. Have you thought that through?
When you use the phrase ''vital interest,'' you remind me of a couple of articles by Robert Pastor. He defines a vital interest as an interest on which you're prepared to go immediately to war. He tries to claim that if the Reagan administration thinks of the Caribbean as a vital interest, then that means that he's planning for war in that region instead of for the use of diplomacy, conciliation, negotiation, etc., all of which he advocates.
I can't live with such simple-minded notions. If somebody says it's a vital interest, it doesn't follow, to my mind, that somebody is therefore going to kill for it or going to go to war for it. . . .
To talk about a vital interest is to talk about an interest on which the security and the welfare of the nation depends. We get an enormous percentage of bauxite, silver, lead, oil, etc., in the region of Central America and the Caribbean. That's just a fact. That makes it a very important issue . . . we also receive a huge percentage of whatever goods are imported into the US through the Panama Canal and the Caribbean.
Some of the nations in the Caribbean together are among the most important suppliers of refined oil products. All of that just points to the crucial importance of that region.
What are the provisions for dissent on the commission?
There is no co-optation of any individual on this commission. I know I was not asked where I was coming down before I was invited to serve. I know that (President Carter's Trade Ambassador) Bob Strauss wasn't. He's been explicit on that subject, that he was in opposition to President Reagan's policy in Latin America, and told the people so at the time they inquired about his willingness to serve.
Nevertheless, they asked him to serve, as he has pointed out. He wasn't asked to commit in advance to any specific thing. So far as I know, no member of that commission has been asked in advance to agree to anything.
All of us are Americans. All of us are intelligent and knowledgeable people. All of us are working very hard on this commission. If there is a solution there , I don't see any reason why we're not likely to find it. If we are likely to find it, there's likely to be a lot of concurrence on what it is.
As president of a university with deep Christian roots, how will you and the commission tackle the issue of liberation theology in Central America - specifically of a Christian dialogue with Marxism, which posits that the ruling class must be overthrown so peace and justice can be present?
Many of the accommodations that have been made both by Protestant churches, such as the Methodist Church, and by the Catholic Church with Marxists, has been one in which they've been able to take a quite condescending attitude toward the interests and rights of third-world people to enjoy the benefits and fruits of freedom.
Many of them seem to overlook entirely what seems to me to be fundamental in Christianity, and that is the freedom of the Christian spirit. The romancing of Christian Democratic parties, and the romancing of the Catholic Church and of the Protestant groups by Fidel Castro and by the Marxists is one of the most interesting phenomena in contemporary religious sociology.
I think often at times, where is (Protestant American theologian) Reinhold Niebuhr when we need him? - Reinhold Niebuhr, who had no difficulty whatsoever in seeing through both the fascist groups on the one hand and the Marxists on the other to their common element of totalitarianism. Seeing that what was inimical to Christianity was the totalitarian elements in both programs. Whether a dictatorship be from the left or whether it be from the right, it doesn't much matter. Both deny the very dignity of the human spirit and the importance of the human spirit's right to live in freedom.
What strengths, what perspective do you bring as president of a leading university in forming the kind of long-term consensus for the region that the President hopes to establish?
Recognizing that a sound policy has to make sense to a widely divergent group of people if it is to claim bipartisan support, is a recognition that comes naturally to a college president.
I don't know of any position outside of a position as a governor of a state or mayor of a city in which the person in charge has to devise policies that will be responsive to as many different constituencies as those that have to be met by a university president.
At the same time I am also concerned that the welfare of the people of that region - and their legitimate interests in living their own lives and having their own countries - be protected, that they be considered not in some patronizing or condescending way as mere instruments to the interests of the US; that we recognize that those things that we paticularly cherish most, such as our democratic institutions and our freedom and independence, are values that are very much of the concern to the people of that region also and must likewise be protected.