The Reagan administration's Central American policies obviously are not working: the military situation in El Salvador has deteriorated over the past two years; in Nicaragua, the administration's secret war has played into the hands of the radical Sandinista commandants a strategy that neither gets rid of them nor moderates their actions; on the contrary, it obviates diplomacy and drives them in an even more radical direction. Meanwhile, we may be edging closer to a dangerous regional war.

Even rudimentary analysis shows that despite the administration's resolute postures, its approach in Central America does not carry us toward any satisfactory denouement. Clearly, the Salvadoran armed forces on their own are not going to defeat the guerrillas. Only the introduction of U.S. combat forces is likely to result in military victory.

The Reagan administration, however, has said it will not take that step. Thus, military victory is ruled out. But at the same time, the administration has so far refused to encourage a negotiated solution. We are thus left with no viable options at all. We are left only with stalemate and drift.

These situations have a dynamic of their own. Eventually, they become so polarized that compromises satisfactory to both sides cannot be worked out. The longer one waits, the more radical the opposition is likely to be. It is not yet too late for imaginative diplomacy, but we must act soon. El Salvador is a logical place to begin.

The FMLN-FDR last October offered to begin a dialogue without preconditions of any kind and suggested that all sectors of Salvadoran society, such as the church and the business community, be brought into the discussions as soon as possible. The U.S. and Salvadoran governments immediately rejected this proposal, but FMLN-FDR representatives confirm that it remains open. To explore it would not be to admit defeat; it would simply be to recognize the stalemate that exists.

The most immediate objective of a dialogue should be to bring about a cease-fire. Beyond that, the principal effort should be to produce conditions under which meaningful elections could be held. The position put forward so far by the administration and the Salvadoran government is neither straightforward nor realistic. They say they are open to reconciliation, that guerrillas who wish to lay down their weapons and participate in the political process are free do do so. But those who have tried it have more often than not ended up as headless corpses, victims of the death squads.

No, in order to get from the trenches to the ballot boxes, there must first be discussions. There were no discussions prior to the 1982 elections. The result was that, however encouraging the voter turnout, the elections were truncated and inconclusive. So will be the elections in 1984 unless preceded by a negotiating process.

Elections in any event are not the principal obstacle to a meeting of minds. The FMLN-FDR already accepts the proposition that a political solution must include elections. The problem is in getting from here to there, for the FMLN-FDR does not trust the government as currently constituted. It is because of this that the issue of "power-sharing" arises. If approached pragmatically by all sides, however, this should not prove insoluble, especially if it is recognized that the principal purpose of a transition government would be to hold elections.

In a situation in which the two parties directly involved have little confidence in one another, it makes sense to include in the dialogue third parties trusted by both. Mexico, Venezuela, Canada and Spain come immediately to mind as witness/guarantors, but there may be other candidates as well. Consideration should also be given to an international peacekeeping force to police any resulting cease-fire.

As the negotiating process begins in El Salvador, the United States, together with, say, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, France and other interested governments, should push for broadly based negotiations in Central America aimed at producing a series of security guarantees or conventions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras, Honduras and El Salvador, and Nicaragua and El Salvador. These conventions should include provisions to: a) prohibit use of military force against one another; b) stop the arms race and limit weapons and armies; and c) halt all cross-border activities from the territory of one against the other.

Finally, while Cuba has played a secondary or supporting role rather than the primary role ascribed to it by the administration, it is and has been involved in Central America. Thus, political arrangements there obviously would have a better chance of working if they had Cuban support. As the United States rather petulantly refuses to discuss any issue with the Cubans, the task of securing Cuban acquiescence might better be assigned to the Mexican, Canadian, French and/or Spanish governments. Havana values its relations with all four. It would hesitate to play a disruptive role if by so doing it were to place its good relations with them in jeopardy. It might even be persuaded to take a constructive part.