Better whole than in parts

The disclosure by dribs and drabs of the Kissinger Commission's report on Central America is a sad mistake. The commission's focus is in grave danger of shifting from a national need - what US policy should be toward that area - to factional squabbling.

Individual aspects of the draft of the overall statement, which may or may not be in the final version now on the brink of release, are being pored over without the context of the whole. Political positions are being staked out on specific issues, and support built as the result of the manipulation of this disclosure.

The key contention so far is over presidential certification of human rights progress, as Congress demands.

This is hardly a new moment in American history. Members of some previous government commissions have similarly impeded their group's prospects for success by leaking information and seeking to build support for their views even before the report was published.

Today the need is immense for a statesmanlike, bipartisan approach to the grave foreign policy challenges represented by Central America. Instead there is political maneuvering and institutional bickering between the White House and some in Congress over the degree of Capitol Hill involvement in making policy.

El Salvador is a case in point. Guerrillas have dealt the dispirited Army two stunning defeats in recent weeks, and the government has made little apparent progress in ensuring that the country will be safe from right-wing terrorism. At this rate El Salvador's presidential elections in March could produce a right-wing victory. The combination of these events could convince Congress, and the American public, that US participation in El Salvador at any level is tantamount to walking into quicksand. As a result, continuance of US aid, both economic and military, could shortly be in serious jeopardy.

What is needed now is for the surfacing of sound ideas for US policy toward El Salvador, which is precisely where the Kissinger group is supposed to come in. Some of the ideas that have come from it in unofficial and snippet form might make excellent sense - depending on the overall context of the document.

Leaked information has spoken of a commission view that much of the pressure for change in Central America comes from the desire of the underclasses for much-needed reform, since the Soviet Union would take advantage of unrest. Ostensibly the report speaks of pressuring the Salvadorean government for increased human rights, more land reform, greater economic progress, and a more effective Army. In return, it has been reported, the commission would recommend increased military and economic aid. Nothing thus far released indicates proposals are being made for dramatic new directions in US policy toward El Salvador or the rest of Central America.

One current danger is that so much commission material has oozed out that the public, and some politicians, are already tiring of the subject. Worse, they may have set their views in mental concrete on the basis of the repeated leaks and accompanying political jockeying.

Nevertheless, once the report is released in toto, it is important that Americans carefully assess its recommendations and their context. All Americans - whether it's the President, member of Congress, or other citizen - need to keep their thinking open: No proposals should be rejected without thought.

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