The Reagan Administration came to power confident of its ability to impose Washington's will on Central America. El Salvador was the immediate focus of its attention-and optimism ran high. The ill-timed January 1981 "final offensive" of the Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberación National (FMLN) had already failed when Ronald Reagan entered the White House. To the eager eyes of the new Administration the FMLN's defeat appeared a rout. Victory would be swift and at little cost, Washington believed, with no need for U.S. assistance markedly above the levels reached by the outgoing Carter Administration. The easy success would spark little controversy at home and abroad, and sweep away any lingering remnants of the Vietnam syndrome in the United States.
The Reagan Administration also emphasized, and has done so consistently ever since, that the course of U.S. policy in El Salvador would influence American prestige and credibility throughout the world. Indeed, if the United States were able to attain the defeat of the rebels without indiscriminate violence, U.S. prestige would be greatly enhanced. Even victory through extreme repression would demonstrate the credibility of the Administration's guarantees, however costly the success might appear in moral terms.
But the Salvadoran "test case" has turned into a nightmare. Recent Administration requests for vastly increased military aid confirm the evidence from the battlefield: the war is not going well. The record of the Salvadoran regime on human rights and social reforms appears dismal to all but the Administration's most devout supporters. At home, Reagan's Salvadoran policy is increasingly divisive; abroad it evokes little sympathy, even among those who do not wish an FMLN victory. Rather than projecting an image of strength and resolve, U.S. involvement in El Salvador increasingly betrays weakness and lack of purpose. The Administration haggles with Congress over a few million dollars of military assistance and a few dozen military advisers, but is unable to suggest a coherent strategy for victory. Meanwhile, inordinate concern is focused on that small