Perspectives on Central America

Whatever may be said of the substantive contribution of the Kissinger commission to the debate over Central America policy, it has left two political problems unresolved. There is evidence that the report has failed to produce a desired consensus in Congress. More importantly, if recent public opinion polls on Nicaragua and El Salvador are any indication, the absence of a public consensus on the issue could be a major obstacle to the recommendation of more military and economic aid.

Polls by Roper, Gallup, ABC/Washington Post, and CBS/New York Times hint that the ''bold action'' called for by the Kissinger commission could be the casualty of an ambivalent public mood.

According to recent soundings, Americans agree with President Reagan that Central America is important to US security. Most, as Roper notes, want the USSR to understand that ''we will resist attempts to take over noncommunist nations.'' Among ''informed'' Americans, CBS says that over 80 percent comprehend the threat posed by falling dominoes in the region. Most Americans agree that Salvador would be worse off now had the US not become involved in the region.

The problem is that not much of what has been proposed as solutions in Central America has been met with public favor.

The only measure with public support is the stationing of American advisers to train Salvadorean forces. Polls show plurality or majority opposition to ongoing joint military exercises in Honduras, to increased sales of military equipment to Salvador, to measures to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, to steps taken to interdict the flow of supplies to leftist guerrillas in Salvador. Americans oppose major increases in economic aid although unrest is attributed to poverty and not to outside communist subversion.

While the public agrees with the threat it disagrees with nearly every proposal to contain it. Roper says, Americans worry more about the danger of becoming ''too entangled'' in Central America than about the spread of communism ''because the US doesn't do enough to stop it.'' For most the cure is as bad as the malady. To the extent the President has advocated strong cures, public approval of his Central America policy has languished.

The recent action in Grenada has not rescued Reagan from this dilemma. Increases in his popularity recorded after the invasion have not translated into a mandate for more decisive action in Central America. The wide margin of support for the invasion is matched only by the percentage opposed to the use of ground forces in Salvador, even as a last resort to prevent a communist takeover.

The President will have to convince Americans the alternative to letting Central America ''slowly bleed to death'' is quantum increases in economic and military aid, not some form of negotiations.

The lukewarm public response to Reagan's attempt last April to build support for Central America policy suggests the limits of even his persuasive powers. With Lebanon as a daily reminder of the hazards of direct involvement, the task of building a public constituency behind the Kissinger commission recommendations may be all but impossible

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