The National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, newly floated by Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), promises to be an interesting and showy exercise to bring peace to an area without actually stopping a war.
It also is an admission that Ronald Reagan, who is proceeding with his plans for a military buildup in the region, has little to fear from the divided Democrats as he carries out his schemes for a show of force and "national will."
Jackson, who has no previous record of peace initiatives, has told his colleagues that, strange as it may sound "coming from an old hawk like me," he does not believe that a military solution will work this time.
His Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (Md.), says the commission idea represents a view that "poverty is the enemy in Latin America" and that a Marshall Plan is needed.
Precisely how this humanitarian scheme will be carried out while the killing continues in El Salvador and in Nicaragua, where Reagan's "secret" war rages on, is not clear.
Nowhere in the proposal is there any mention of negotiations.
On the House side, the co-sponsors of the commission are Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), who is a persistent critic of administration policy and the bloody Nicaraguan operation, and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who is not. Kemp defended the "counterrevolutionaries" in a recent hearing with Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
"Some people," Kemp fumed, indicating plainly that he is is not one of them, "speak of covert operations as though there were something unseemly about them, as though they are nothing more than dirty tricks."
Barnes likes to think of the commission as an echo of the bipartisan group that was convened to plan the recovery of Europe after World War II.
Other Democrats, however, see it as a chilling carbon copy of the bipartisan commission on the MX, which gave younger members a chance to play statesman and a shelter from a difficult vote. In the name of peace, they gave Reagan the weapon he wanted in exchange for professions of a new sincerity on arms control.
Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) regards the prospect glumly, as another effort to blur the differences between the parties and immobilize the Democratic opposition.
"We hide behind a commission, and we turn Congress as a whole into a rubber stamp," he said. "Why would you expect voters to come out and vote for Democrats, as if we stand for something different?"
The group, which Jackson says should be "composed of distinguished leaders from all sectors of American society," will make recommendations for a policy that will resemble the Marshall Plan "in its commitment and sense of responsibility."
A spokesman for the senator could not give his views on the fighting in Nicaragua. "As a member of the Intelligence Committee, he never comments on covert activity," it was explained.
Barnes concedes that "we may have to wait until January, 1985, for a shift" from the military approach, but insists that a commission would be "a positive initiative."
The ink on a report from a bipartisan and also inter-hemispheric commission that already has fingered poverty, not communist aggression, as the enemy in Central America--and that already has advocated social justice and massive infusions of economic aid--is scarcely dry. The commission formed by Sol M. Linowitz was extremely bipartisan: its membership included David Rockefeller, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff David C. Jones, Elliot L. Richardson, Father Theodore M. Hesburgh and Edmund S. Muskie. It has not caught on in Congress, mostly because the diverse group advocated negotiations all around--including with Cuba and the Soviet Union.
It's a pretty safe bet that any body under the patronage of Jackson and Kemp will not promote such a radical notion.
The life of the new bipartisan commission, from inception to report, is to be six months. Its membership and its agenda will give Congress something to talk about while the president builds up bases and training in Honduras, cheers on the contras and pays occasional lip service to negotiations--although never with the Salvadoran rebels, nor about anything but voting in the elections.
The fact is that Democrats do not want to dig in and stand up to Reagan in the face of his threat to blame them for "losing" El Salvador. They are split wide open on the subject of shutting down the secret war in Nicaragua. A bipartisan commission probably will do no harm. It's just that it obviously will not address, in time to save any wretched lives, the central problem in Central America, which is that people are killing each other.