War in a Time Warp

June 13, 1991

Eleven years of civil war and still the killing goes on, pushed by a perverse belief that increased military pressure is the required precursor to a cease fire. The nation thus trapped between a right-wing army and a left-wing insurgency is poor little El Salvador, which has nothing to show for the mayhem except 72,000 graves, a destroyed economy and enough heartache to last generations.

El Salvador does not even get the headlines that placed it on the front pages of the Reagan era. Which is just as well. President Bush's policy has been to put Central America on the back-burner, its fires no longer stoked by superpowers fighting proxy wars. Instead his administration has encouraged United Nations-sponsored peace negotiations between the government of President Alfredo Cristiani and the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

Mr. Cristiani is now in Washington seeking understanding, which he should get, and the release of $42.5 million in military aid, which he should not. Under current statute, Mr. Bush can make this money available only if he finds the FMLN intractable. He made such a finding in January after rebels shot down a U.S. helicopter, but has wisely not released funds. Pressure has to be kept on Salvadoran authorities, especially the army.

At the same time, House Democrats have wisely refrained from putting similar requirements for a presidential finding in an $85 million military aid grant for the fiscal year starting in October. Congress will make this determination only in September while keeping the FMLN under surveillance. Pressure has to be kept on rebel forces, especially the extremists.

This twin-forked, carrot-and-stick U.S. policy has a ring of authenticity, not only because it is aimed at two hostile antagonists but because it comes from both sides in the Great Central American Policy Debate that roiled Washington in the 1980s. It is a sensible course as as talks on a cease-fire go into a showdown stage. Last April the antagonists agreed on a peace package intended to reduce the power and role of the army in El Salvador's governance while guaranteeing a multi-party democracy. But the two sides almost immediately got hung up on the terms of a cease-fire, notably how much territory is to remain under FMLN control and procedures for disarming warring contingents. As rebel attacks increased, especially on electric power stations, Mr. Cristiani vowed: "If they want war, they'll get it." The rebel Radio Venceremos responded in kind.

What the Salvadoran people want is not war but peace. Exhausted, stalemated, caught in a vicious time warp, they deserve to get it.

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