Salvadoran Foot-Dragging Wears Out the Welcome Mat on Capitol Hill : El Salvador: U.S. support of the civil war has slipped from steadfast to debatable in six short months. What changed Congress’ mind?

<i> Kenneth E. Sharpe is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College and co-author of "Confronting Revolution: Security Through Diplomacy in Central America "(Pantheon, 1986). </i>

Last fall, Sen. Christopher Dodd helped block efforts to put serious conditions on military aid to El Salvador. Today, the Connecticut Democrat argues that fully half of that aid should be cut, starting now.

Dodd’s change of mind reflects the first major shift in thinking among liberals and moderates on El Salvador since 1984, when the election of reformist President Jose Napoleon Duarte all but ended four years of acrimonious debate on the U.S. counterinsurgency policy. Since then, the central questions in Washington have been: How can the guerrillas be defeated, and how can the government be encouraged to promote reform so as to remove the roots of revolution?

Today a new debate in Washington is shaping much different questions: How can we shed our responsibility for a corrupt and murderous military, and how can we encourage a negotiated end to this unwinnable war?

Why the change?


In November, the guerrillas mounted a surprise offensive and held large areas of the capital city while simultaneously attacking important provincial centers. Like the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, it was beaten back, but like Tet, it gave the lie to U.S. tales of the guerrillas’ demise and convinced all but the most stubborn observers that 10 years of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy had failed. The FMLN remains a powerful military force that can veto U.S. attempts to exclude them from sharing political power.

Throughout the 10 years of war, the Salvadoran military has accused religious workers of fomenting revolutionary sentiment among the poor. On the fifth night of the FMLN November offensive, nine soldiers from the elite U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion broke into the Jesuit-run university in San Salvador and murdered six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.

The killing of the Jesuits dramatized the failure of the U.S. strategy. Despite the success in promoting periodic elections, U.S. policy was seen as failing to foster the basic conditions for democracy--protection of human rights, the freedom to organize, an independent judiciary.

Last month, a task force of 19 House Democrats looked into the status of investigations into the Jesuit killings. Among its conclusions: The army had no intention of submitting to civilian judicial control; the justice system was unable to investigate thousands of other crimes linked to the military, and military repression makes little distinction between those who advocate nonviolent change and those who take up arms with the guerrillas. The good intentions of an elected president who holds office but no power no longer seemed a justification for aiding his brutal army. Also, it was clear that “conditionality"--tying release of U.S. aid to Salvadoran reforms--hasn’t worked.

In February, two major justifications for supporting the Salvadoran military on a grand scale fell apart with the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. It has now become much more difficult to claim that the Sandinistas are the cause and sustenance of the insurgency in El Salvador. And after the Sandinistas’ willingness to accept the results of free and fair elections, it will be difficult to claim that allowing the guerrilla left to share power will spell the end of democracy in El Salvador.

The changes in Eastern Europe, too, have undermined the justification that the aim in El Salvador is to prevent a “Soviet beachhead” in Central America. Further, the new demands on scarce foreign aid being made by Eastern European countries have put budgetary pressures on the $1 million a day we’re giving to El Salvador. Some in Congress simply want to wash their hands of the whole mess and turn their attention to Europe.

The more realistic perceptions of the Salvadoran and global situation have led pragmatists on Capitol Hill to favor a new aid strategy. Instead of “give aid, with conditions,” they favor “cut aid, and condition its renewal.” This week, the House is considering legislation that calls for a 50% military aid cut now, with the threat to cut the rest if Alfredo Cristiani is overthrown, or if the military and government don’t negotiate in good faith, or if the Jesuits’ murders are not adequately prosecuted. To answer critics who say such cuts will encourage the guerrillas, the legislation adopts Dodd’s creative solution: If the guerrillas launch a major offensive, the 50% cut can be restored. That gives both sides an incentive to negotiate seriously.

The new debate in Washington, however, does not yet signal a change in course. First, the loopholes in the aid cutback are big enough to drive a truck through. For example, it allows the President to renew the aid if he certifies that the guerrillas are not negotiating in good faith, or if he has proof that the guerrillas are receiving significant shipments of lethal aid from outside of El Salvador. The willingness of the Bush and Reagan administrations to distort reality to keep the aid flowing in the past does not bode well here.

The Bush Administration is anxious to forestall congressional restrictions and will push to defeat or significantly weaken the legislation. Until the Administration itself faces the reality that current policy will continue to fail, and that the only viable alternative is serious negotiations that recognize the power of the guerrillas, the changed debate in Washington will not lead to the needed change in course.