THE UNITED STATES has a problem in Central America. It may have to make peace.

Ever since the Reagan administration took office in 1981, it has supported military forces opposing the Nicaraguan government. Officially, the administration wants freedom, democracy and peace in Central America. But at the same time as it demands pledges and promises of reform from the Sandinista government, the administration's deep distrust of anything with a Marxist tint makes it unwilling to accept whatever commitments Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega might offer. The only thing the Nicaraguan government could do that would satisfy the United States would be to leave office.Now, with the leaders of five Central American nations proposing a peace plan for the region, the administration is in a tight spot. Its ideological blinders make it certain that the Nicaraguans would ignore their own promises to stop fighting, encourage political pluralism and not aid political movements in other countries. Washington is insisting that the plan can succeed only if the United States provides more military aid to the Contras, allowingthem to keep the pressure on. If the Nicaraguan government keeps its part of the bargain first, then the United States will respond.

It is no wonder that the United States' purported support for peace in Central America meets with skepticism all over Latin America. Mr. Reagan, it appears, wants peace, but only on his terms.

The United States has legitimate concerns to raise in any Central American peace negotiation. But a major reason that direct U.S.-Nicaraguan talks have failed in the past is the administration's inability to separate those fundamental issues from its longer list of desirable reforms in Nicaragua.

There is, for example, no reason to accept stationing of foreign troops, ships and aircraft in Nicaragua. They would destabilize the entire region and potentially threaten the security of the United States. The Central American nations, too, have good reason to insist that the Sandinistas not support political or military forces elsewhere. An international agreement to monitor such activities is very much in order.

On the other hand, United States insistence on "democracy" and "self- determination" in Nicaragua smacks of the old anti-communist double standard. The fact that the Sandinista government has restricted civil liberties, including political debate and freedom of the press, is undisputed. But the elections that ratified their hold on power, while far from perfect, were no less democratic than those in most other Central American nations. Holding the Sandinistas to a standard that few of their neighbors meet is not only hypocritical, but it casts serious doubt on the United States' desire for peace in the region. Quiet and persistent diplomacy, backed by the united force of public opinion throughout the Americas, is likely to do far more to bring about political reform than loud demands.

The United States has one overriding interest in Central America: fostering and strengthening stable democratic government. Sponsoring a military force to overthrow Nicaragua's government is not the way to achieve that end. Supporting the nations of Central America as they attempt to resolve their own region's problems is.

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