THE CARTER ADMINISTRATION is trying to get out a bit ahead of the curve in dealing with the extremely dicey political situation in Central America. It is offering economic aid and military training, though not arms, to the victorious Sandinistas in Nicaragua in an attempt to keep the American option open to the left-leaning guerrillas in power there. It is quietly working where other explosions are building in Central America, particularly El Salvador, to see if change can be brought by other than revolutionary means.

Does this sound novel as well as sensible? It is both. In few places has American policy over the last generation or two been less forward-looking and more wedded to losers than in Central America. In the name of stability and anti-communism, the United States has helped prop up one dreary dictator after another. Jimmy Carter did try to shake loose from this policy in Nicaragua. But his effort was so belated and uncertain that it did not produce either evolutionary change or the instantly moderate, democratic, pro-American regime that Americans always hope, against all odds, will emerge from the ruins of the old order. Now in modest but deliberate ways, his administration is playing catch-up ball in Nicaragua, and practicing preventive diplomacy in El Salvador.

Is the American effort enough? Too much? It is easy enough to find flaws in any policy directed at getting a handle on local situations undergoing rapid and unpredictable change. In Nicaragua, for instance, the real crisis will come (perhaps soon) when the new regime's political and moral debts to the poor start bumping up against its need to attract the skills and capital of the middle class and of the overseas institutions, like banks, that work essentially with the middle class. In El Salvador, the crisis will come (also soon) when the 14 ruling families will have to decide whether to tough it out in the Somoza style or to accept concessions endangering their grasp on privilege and power. Washington will face blurred choices that lead to other blurred choices. It will be a second-guesser's paradise.

Perhaps it is enough for now that the bureaucracy, though feeling twice-burned by its experience with Nicaragua, is concerned with the issue of adjusting American policy to local change, that American diplomats are becoming more sensitive to the value of working out a Central America policy with the democratic Latin nations, and that some effort is being made to build informed understanding in Congress. Each and every one represents an improvement on past ways of doing business in Latin America.