Caribbean debate

THE American public right now could use a score card for the politics on Central America. Basically, there are two arenas - Congress and the presidential campaign trail. Driving the argument in both settings is what level or mix of economic and military aid, if any, the United States should extend to the region. We welcome this debate, and anticipate it will intensify in coming weeks.

First Congress: Congress rightly is not ready to cut off President Reagan's initiatives in the region. A president, as the country's chief executive, gets a measure of the benefit of the doubt from Capitol Hill as well as from the public. But Congress will go along only so far. So in the Senate, Mr. Reagan's $ 93 million military aid request for El Salvador appears headed for a bipartisan discounting to some $62 million this week. It will likely be trimmed even more in the House.

On the El Salvador aid, Reagan's case was helped somewhat by the fact that the election was held, and by the results, with the victory of the moderate candidate. Weighing against this is deep unease over whether a runoff election will safely be held, whether the moderates will defeat the extreme right-wing candidate, and whether even a moderate victory would lead to progress on the country's civil war and economic chaos. US military assistance itself is in question: US spy-plane overflights are apparently being used not only to safeguard the elections from guerrilla disruption but as a direct military assist to government forces; contrary to US military assertions, US troops are being fired upon.

Again, Congress is not ready to call the President's hand. Salvadorean aid right now is the focus of the debate. The omnibus Kissinger plan for economic and military aid has been shelved for the moment, although it could be acted on by summer. But the plan's attempt to lure liberal votes with economic aid and conservative votes with military aid isn't enticing enough yet for either side.

Congress is trying to juggle all this at once, and Salvadorean aid is the legislative handle of the moment. Paring back the administration's aid request - to about what the White House could have expected at the outset - appears the right way to go.

Now the presidential politics of Central America:

Front-runners Walter Mondale and Gary Hart are maneuvering to capture votes on the left. Mr. Mondale has challenged Mr. Hart with charges of vacillating on the nuclear freeze. Hart has been hitting Mondale on Central America - by sounding echoes of US troop losses in Vietnam, linking Mondale to Reagan's policy for the region, and by making US troop presence in Central America into a litmus test for the liberal vote.

Whether any sitting US president - including Hart, Mondale, or Jackson - would withdraw troops entirely from the region is arguable. But if in tomorrow's primary in New York Hart scores big on the issue, it could become more of a feature of his campaign.

Congress, however, is where the decisions are being made for the moment.

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