THE peripatetic George Shultz managed to squeeze in a long-overdue visit to Central America last week. Its duration - a short three days - and its sandwiching between a long trip last month to the Soviet Union and Middle East and to East Asia this week made it look like something of a side show. Still, the secretary of state's Central American trip demonstrated anew Washington's continued high level interest in seeing the region resolve its problems. To help, however, the administration may have to reorder its priorities.
Shultz went at the urging of congressional Republicans; they wanted the Reagan administration to show that it has not abandoned Central America. For the contras, the visit provided needed assurance of United States moral support at a time when military support is nonexistent. The White House wants to strengthen their hand at the bargaining table. If the administration hoped to generate regional support for more military aid to the contras, however, officials had to be disappointed. None of the four democracies visited by Shultz support such a move.
Current US Central American policy is somewhat ambiguous. The administration keeps looking for ways to reinstate military aid. A bipartisan group in Congress is now drafting a plan whereby military aid would be held in escrow until all diplomatic means of reaching a settlement are exhausted. The administration would have to push this plan hard to make it succeed, and its backing offers no such guarantee.
Some in the administration prefer a more pragmatic approach. Yet encouraging a negotiated settlement may require some backing off of support for the contras. Shultz's admission that the administration has in the past ``stood back'' from the diplomatic process and might have gotten involved in the peace process earlier is encouraging.
Recurrence of the four-against-one scenario was disappointing. Shultz visited the region's four democracies, in part hoping to secure their support for putting full blame on the Sandinistas for the current stall in the Nicaraguan peace process. This we-they approach does not fit the framework of the Arias plan; that plan commits the five Central American signatories to resolving their common problems together.
The secretary's visit served as a reminder to military forces in Guatemala and El Salvador that any threats to their civilian governments could jeopardize US aid. But Secretary Shultz's comments showed a continuing administration preoccupation with the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador and a tendency to see them largely in East-West terms. The social and economic injustices which underlie the appeal of leftist ideologies and the vast array of other problems afflicting the region have not been given enough attention; they need to be addressed.
Progress made in the Nicaraguan situation should not be underestimated. A clear framework exists for a settlement. A cease-fire has been holding for three months. Both sides say they want to continue talks; neither wants to be first to break the cease-fire.
For its part, the US should concentrate on providing the right atmosphere for progress in the region, rather than on its leverage to force this or that change:
Support for democrats and more openness should continue. The administration should realize and make it clear to others that a military victory is not possible; bargaining is the only route to peace. Support for moderate contras such as Alfredo C'esar is appropriate.
The US can also make it clear that humanitarian aid and developmental assistance for the Sandinistas are possible if an acceptable political settlement is reached.
The administration faces a difficult situation in trying to recast its Central American policy in ways that can really help to bring peace. The administration's failure to influence recent events in Panama has been a major disappointment.
We hope that his trip gave Secretary Shultz some needed new ideas about ways in which US policy toward Central America should change. We look forward to his return to the region Aug. 1 for another meeting with the Central American foreign ministers as a further step in sorting that process out.