President Reagan's address yesterday on El Salvador significantly raised the ante for the United States in that small Central American country, in terms of military aid and political commitment.
The policy-making effort that culminated in Reagan's address was this administration's third high-profile try in three years at coping with El Salvador, each time considering the problem in a different perspective.
The administration this time is not talking about any basic shift in policy; its proposal amounts to a lot more of the same. But the level of U.S. national commitment has also been lifted this time because of Reagan's more intense personal involvement in the issue and his series of bristly public statements depicting El Salvador as vital to U.S. national security.
The first phase of Reagan policy making on El Salvador began in February, 1981, when then-Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. put that country on the national political map by depicting its strife as part of a "well-orchestrated international communist campaign" and threatening to "go to the source" by taking action against Cuba. After lengthy internal deliberation, the buildup of enormous U.S. public apprehension and submission of a secret plan by Haig to impose a sea blockade of Cuba, this approach was rejected by Reagan as too risky.
The second major attempt was capped in February, 1982, by Reagan's announcement of a Caribbean Basin initiative that formally lifted Central America to a high priority in his world view, but placed the remedial emphasis on economic and trade concessions to the area. Congress took action on only a small part of this program, with the rest still languishing on Capitol Hill with uncertain prospects.
This year's approach arose from a requirement for more military aid for the Salvadoran army, compounded by disappointment in the recent performance of those forces. Compared to the earlier sequences, there was little consideration this time of large-scale policy initiatives or shifts.
At the outset of his speech yesterday, the president defined the Central American problem as one of "governments seizing power with ideological and military ties to the Soviet Union," and he stressed lines of direction and supply for Salvadoran guerrillas from "Marxist Nicaragua." The same charges, in the hands of Haig, justified the threats of U.S. military action to stop the support, but there was no such threat or suggestion in yesterday's speech.
In the course of the current policy review, Reagan decided to put much more U.S. money into the Salvadoran military than had been contemplated even a few weeks ago. This represents a major stepup in the commitment of U.S. resources, but one taking place within previously established guidelines on U.S. military action in the area.
Plans long on the Pentagon wish list for greatly increased training, civic action, military supply and other military support for El Salvador were dusted off in the course of the study and would be funded under yesterday's proposal. For example, the extra $110 million being sought would make it possible to give U.S.-supplied training to 50 percent of the Salvadoran army, compared to 10 percent with such training at present, according to Pentagon officials.
The scale of the proposed increase is dramatic. Last year's budget request for U.S. military aid to El Salvador was $26 million, but the program proposed yesterday for the current fiscal year totals $136 million--five times as much. (In the administration's fact sheets, the size of the increase is masked by the inclusion in last year's figures of $55 million in emergency aid from a special contingency fund to replace aircraft destroyed by a guerrilla raid on Ilopongo Air Base in early 1982.)
Reagan considered, but did not immediately adopt, proposals for increasing the number of U.S. advisory personnel in El Salvador and allowing them closer to battle action. Official statements left the impression those controversial actions might well be taken in the months ahead, depending on the situation in Congress and in the war zone.
As a concession to some lawmakers the program included more economic aid as well, but this seemed to be window dressing for the military increase and was not the central concern of the administration.
On the diplomatic side, Reagan gave U.S. approval to regional peace initiatives under discussion among Central American and other Latin American nations. However, his description seemed to limit their scope, rejecting any negotiations for "power sharing" involving governments and guerrillas. It is unclear whether or to what extent Washington would seek to impose this view on its regional partners.
Perhaps the most important fact is that Reagan himself, by all accounts, took more interest and a more personal role in this Central American "policy review" than in the previous two years. The results as announced yesterday included very tough rhetoric, amounting to an increased U.S. commitment; a sharp increase in military funds; some increase in proposed economic aid, and a negotiating policy centering on the election process. The big question now is how Congress and the American people will react.