The time is at hand for the Reagan administration and Congress to sit down and form a bipartisan bridge of agreement on the course the United States should pursue in El Salvador, both in the long and short run. On this issue, suspicion and frustration between these two branches of the US government have replaced tentative cooperation and reasonable degree of consensus. The process can and should be reversed, but it will take candor, goodwill, and hard work on all sides.
El Salvador is too close to United States borders to be ignored: It should be provided with US help, both economic and military. But in turn the Salvadorean government must substantially improve its record of human rights toward its own people.
As usual in an election year, politics is bound up in the current dispute in Washington: the politics both of the US elections next November, and of the Salvadorean presidential election, the 25th of this month. But the issue transcends politics, with each side in Washington feeling the other really does not understand the situation.
From the administration's perspective, El Salvador needs not only long-range military and economic aid, but also short-term military aid - about $93 million almost immediately. Otherwise, US officials have begun to warn, the Salvadorean Army may run out of both ammunition and morale, and collapse if the guerrillas stage a major offensive during the next 21/2 half weeks of the Salvadorean election campaign. (That is widely doubted in Congress, with some members feeling the administration by its emergency aid request is actually trying to signal its continued support to the Salvadorean government, in advance of its elections.)
Administration officials are frustrated that Congress will not more swiftly agree to its overall Salvadorean aid request, now in Senate and House committees. Thursday the administration sought to obtain emergency money through the parliamentary maneuver of tacking it onto a bill that seemed sure to pass the Senate - famine relief for Africa.
From Congress's perspective, there is great skepticism about the overall administration policy in El Salvador. Congress is concerned that the administration, despite denials, is more interested in obtaining a military than an economic or diplomatic solution to the Salvadorean morass. Many in Congress feel the administration never could effectively define a clear policy in its well-intentioned effort to aid Lebanon: They want to make sure there is no repetition in El Salvador.
Some congressional moderates on the Salvadorean issue, who heretofore had been trying to build bridges with the administration, now feel that it is shortsightedly circumventing Congress by even considering the idea of tacking a Salvadorean aid request onto the Africa famine proposal. To Congress this represents an impolitic end run: Although the tactic may, in the short term, obtain emergency military assistance, in the long run it would seriously jeopardize the administration's multi-year plan of greater economic and military help. This concern is believed to be shared by some in Washington who are close to the current Salvadorean government.
Congressional sources hold that whenever they had asked administration representatives, in public or private, whether emergency aid was required or planned, the answer had been in the negative. To them the seeds of distrust are being sown even by talk of providing such aid through an amendment to the African famine bill.
Further, there are signs that some Republicans and Democrats are preparing to blame each other should El Salvador collapse before the US's November elections.
But this is not a time for distrust or blame. Rather it is a moment for cool heads and a clear vision. Top officials of the administration and of Congress, forgetting past feelings, should promptly begin anew to build bridges toward each other on the issue of US policy toward El Salvador. Both long-term policies and short-term needs should be frankly discussed, and honestly assessed. Neither of the two arms of government can operate independently: Each must have the cooperation of the other.