THE situation in Central America, looming increasingly serious, needs close scrutiny by Congress. The evidence on the ground in Honduras does not seem to jibe with explanations given by the Reagan administration about the temporary nature of US activities there. Surely the administration wants to make it clear to the American people what its interests are.
In the region, United States participation is stepped up: Another major US military exercise is under way in Honduras, and it now is confirmed that US surveillance planes based in Honduras are relaying to Salvadorean troops information about guerrilla positions.
In Washington, Congress again is debating administration requests for $62 million in emergency aid to El Salvador.
A key question Congress should address: Does administration policy toward Central America contain the proper mixture of military vs. diplomatic thrust? Many in Congress are concerned that there is an overemphasis on the military and insufficient attention to the diplomatic.
Another essential point: Just what does the US intend to do in Honduras? Both the Honduran and US governments insist military maneuvers are temporary and that no permanent US presence or bases will remain.
Skeptics in and out of Washington are not so sure. They worry that the US is deepening its involvement incrementally, without either a clear long-term plan or a reasonable likelihood that anything Washington does will result in the establishment of democratic governments.
As to Honduras itself, for some while US critics of the administration effort have been concerned that it would overly strengthen the Honduran military forces in relationship to the relatively weak civilian government. The ouster and exile of the Honduran armed forces commander, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, in part may have resulted from concern by junior officers and the civilian government that he was becoming too strong.
In the US itself a debate now gathers force on the proper role of the US in Central America. It is somewhat parallel to the earlier debate on US participation in Lebanon, though without the immediate factor of obvious danger to US troops as existed in the Middle East.
It is Congress's responsibility to make clear to the public what the facts are. It ought to examine carefully the Reagan administration's proposals, explanations, and justifications. It should unearth the facts about current and planned US actions in Honduras and the US aims there.
Some moderate congressmen now believe that the US, despite denials, actually is constructing permanent if small military bases in Honduras. They say the US already has built or improved six rudimentary airstrips and four base camps capable of handling at least five thousand troops.
In addition, the US built two radar stations in Honduras; one was left behind after each of two previous military exercises.
It is understandable that, in part, the Reagan administration would want to keep both Nicaragua's government and the Salvadorean guerrillas guessing as to what Washington's intentions are. There is evidence that this policy is having some positive effect on Nicaragua, such as its announcement of November elections and a possible reduction in the military aid it provides to Salvadorean guerrillas.
The increasing US assistance to Central America frequently is mentioned as paralleling the step-by-step American involvement in Vietnam, with the unspoken conclusion that US action in Central America inevitably will also become bogged down.
The parallel is inexact and the conclusion unwarranted. There is no inevitability: For example, the US did not get into an endless morass in Lebanon but was able to withdraw fully from it, with US ships having just departed Lebanese waters. But the Lebanese adventure was at a heavy cost in American lives and American credibility in the region.
There is no inevitability about Central American involvement either. But there are, again, serious implications in the direction of US policy. The US does need to be clear on its commitments and its policies there - in Honduras, El Salvador, and elsewhere. And it needs to communicate them fully and clearly to its citizens.