'TIS always better, said Churchill, to jaw-jaw than to war-war. In that spirit, we welcome the new talks between the government of El Salvador and the leftist guerrillas that opened in Mexico City last week. But hopes for peace shouldn't be allowed to race ahead of sober realism. Goodness knows, the end can't come any too soon for the 10-year Salvadoran conflict, which has cost 70,000 lives and displaced 1 million people - a fifth of the population. It's been a dirty war: right-wing death squads murdering union leaders and even a Roman Catholic archbishop, rebels ``executing'' village mayors and other civil officials.
Earlier talks between the rebels and the government of former president Jos'e Napole'on Duarte were futile, and seemed to have been undertaken largely for public-relations effect. There are, at least, some promising factors in the new powwow. The rebel group - the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) - has scaled back some of its non-starter demands for the overhaul of the Salvadoran government and Army, and some observers detect a more moderate tone in the rebels' latest statements.
For the government's part, the new president, Alfredo Cristiani of the rightist ARENA Party, has the confidence of the business establishment and the Army and may, therefore, have somewhat more latitude in negotiations than Mr. Duarte enjoyed.
Still, apart from sheer war-weariness - to which war chieftains seem less susceptible than do the rank and file - little has changed to impart a new dynamic to peace talks. The gun-toters on both sides still think they can win in the field. Politically, Mr. Cristiani dares not drift too far from ARENA's powerful hard-right, hardline wing, to which concessions are suspect. The FMLN leaders have yet to prove that they regard talks as something besides a gambit in a long-range victory plan.
One constructive development, though, has been a trend toward negotiated settlements of political disputes throughout Central America. Not only have the leaders of El Salvador's neighbors made clear their preference for negotiations, but the Bush administration also appears more inclined toward a political solution in Salvador than the Reagan team was. Perhaps both sides in the war sense that prolonged violence will put them out of step with the international community.
More promising than talks on rather grandiose plans for making over Salvadoran society would be agreement on some small, concrete steps to mitigate the viciousness of the war and build trust between the adversaries. When such steps are in place, then we'll know that the jaw-jaw is serious.