In Washington, the public part of administration policy toward El Salvador melts, then freezes over again, while privately the policy is questioned in the State Department, the Pentagon and among moderate Republicans. Some feel that there may be no alternative to peace talks. In El Salvador, meanwhile, there is a profound internal crisis in both the government and the army, and a "third force" favoring dialogue with the left has emerged.

After the latest round of fighting, strategists on both sides of the civil war have concluded that the Salvadoran army is not capable of winning without a substantial increase in U.S. aid and a fundamental change in tactics. Neither is likely. Meanwhile the guerrillas in the field and their public spokesmen are cocky. They say they have learned how to fight the U.S.-trained battalions, to carry out large daylight maneuvers and to coordinate their activities in different parts of the country.

In contrast, Col. Sigifredo Ochoa's rebellion in January revealed serious divisions in the armed forces. These are deepening as Defense Minister Jos,e Garcia refuses to step down gracefully despite the legitimacy of Ochoa's charges of corruption, cronyism and inaction. The high command continues to shun U.S. military advice because it fears its implementation would tear the web of political and economic patronage that holds the current army together.

Ochoa was an effective commander, but he refused to carry out agrarian reform. The conflict in the military reflects a broader division in Salvadoran society. Ranged on one side is the old oligarchy and the upper reaches of the Salvadoran bourgeoisie. Led by Roberto D'Aubuisson and his ARENA party, they wish to reverse what is left of the reform process and to wage a no- holds-barred campaign against the guerrillas.

On the other side are Garcia's high command, the moderate political parties, and the U.S. Embassy, all convinced of the need for some reform for political, not least American political, considerations. Each side controls a share of civil and military power. This has led to a near-paralysis of the Salvadoran government, which has been unable to advance on the project of drawing up a new constitution or to name a "peace commission" to handle the question of "dialogue" with the guerrillas.

As the economy plummets and the war drags on, the wrangling in San Salvador begins to suggest a falling out among thieves. In November, ARENA and the Christian Democrats traded accusations of electoral fraud, breaking an agreement to silence such talk brokered by the U.S. ambassador after the March elections. The country's first vice president, from the traditional National Conciliation Party (PCN) has joined the chorus. In a conversation with me in San Salvador, he accused both ARENA and the Christian Democrats of fraud against the PCN.

Party leaders openly acknowledge that the government is paralyzed by its internal contradictions while each seeks to position himself for the coming elections. But in their eagerness to raid the pantry, they seem oblivious that the floor may be caving in. In private, some officials told me that the only solution is "dialogue" with the left. When I asked one very high government official why he would not say so publicly, he replied, "They'd kill me."

The public shares the disillusion with the elections and the desire for talks to end the war. Perhaps the most significant long-range development is the appearance of a broad current favoring dialogue with the guerrillas. Its main force is in the trade unions. Rampant inflation, a government-imposed wage (but not price) freeze, massive layoffs and factory closings and repression against union activities and leaders have led the unions to close ranks above and beyond old ideological and political differences. The unity of the unions contrasts sharply with the divisions among the political parties and the army.

Leaders from unions previously associated with the government or with the left agree that neither the government nor the FDR-FMLN (the opposition coalition) represents them. They favor a multilateral dialogue that would include all organized sectors of the population.

The unions' conviction that "dialogue" is the only way out of the national crisis is now shared by the largest official peasant organization (the UCS) and by increasing numbers of professionals, technocrats, bureaucrats, merchants and other business people.

In November a group of middle-echelon army officers demanded that the local press print their communiqu,e urging peace talks. Even one high- level officer told me recently that he, too, favored talks "to find out what the guerrillas really want." Indeed, on those rare occasions one hears Salvadoran voices unconstrained by fear of reprisals, what comes through clearly is the wish for "dialogue."

Since last summer the Salvadoran church has been ever more publicly and insistently calling for talks. The military's debacle, the government's paralysis and the public's disquiet create a fertile field for Pope John II's visit next Sunday. The thrust of the pope's message will surely be dialogue and reconciliation.

For Salvadorans the pope is not merely the highest authority of the Catholic church. He is literally "God's Deputy"--God's voice. Especially in the present circumstances, his message could have a powerful impact. It will be ignored at their peril by the Salvadoran right or left.

Moderate Salvadoran political leaders told me that the pope's visit could give them an opportunity further to weaken D'Aubuisson and to open the way to dialogue. The dialogue they have in mind in no sense amounts to the "abandoning" of the Salvadoran government with which it is often equated by administration spokesmen.

Increasingly, the greatest obstacle to dialogue is not in El Salvador but in Washington. The shifting signals here indicate the intensity of the struggle within the administration on Central American policy. For the time being, the ideologues have warded off the efforts of moderates to explore a political solution.