THE QUESTION now in El Salvador is whether the situation has not deteriorated past the point of arrest, let alone repair, by anybody. The civilian-military junta is hemorrhaging, perhaps fatally, notwithstanding its own exertions and the administration's efforts to keep it alive. It has been unable to cope with the violence either of its guerrilla enemies on the left, or, it seems, of government security forces ostensibly under its command, or of paramilitary "death squads" on the far right.
Over the weekend, moreover, the junta was dealt a severe blow by its principal outside supporter. The Carter administration suspended military and economic aid following the discovery of the bodies of four American women missionaries sympathetic to the Salvadoran left. The premise of the suspension was that the junta was to blame.In haste and seeming inconsistency, however, the administration at the same time dispatched a mission to El Salvador to determine which party actually committed the crime. Even before this happened, the administration, judging that the political cost outweighed the military necessity, had hesitated to send the junta "lethal" arms. With the suspension, it becomes even harder to see how what is left of the junta will remake its Carter connection. h
The Reagan camp is in no hurry to jump into the chaos. Its tendency is to step back from that part of the Carter outlook that puts considerable responsibility for the unraveling on the junta's own excesses. The Reagan people see the aid suspension as the unilateral disarmament of the one player with a capacity to stand up to the increasingly well-armed guerrilla left, whose leading civilian associates have rejected all of the government's bids to enter political talks. The Reaganites put little stock in the very strong and dangerous possibility that some Salvadoran elements are pushing events toward a rightist coup in the expectation that Mr. Reagan will accept it for its anti-communism pretensions.
El Salvador may blow: the top civilian still in the junta estimates that the resulting deaths would be measured in the hundreds of thousands. The administration has fought valiantly to create a viable center, but it now seems to be losing its grasp on an effective policy by which to try to contain the damage either within that country or elsewhere in Central America. The outgoing and incoming administrations are far from the meeting of minds that alone could produce a unified policy. A week ago it struck us that El Salvador was the one world trouble spot where Ronald Reagan did not have the luxury of waiting until Jan. 20 to make a preliminary judgment. This seems to us to be even more poignantly the case now.