The vote by Congress on whether to support the contras is a crossroads in U.S. policy toward Nicaragua. Congress should avoid diversionary issues, such as whether the contras are Somocista or Nicaragua is communist; neither is the case, or the critical point. In deciding whether to endorse the contras, the choice is between two strategies.

The Reagan administration's unilateral strategy will lead eventually to a choice between 1) lending direct military support to the contras to overthrow the regime and 2) abandoning U.S. security interests in Central America. Support for the contras is not a substitute for U.S. intervention, as some contend; it is the first installment on a loan that the contras can repay only with the help of the Marines. An alternative, multilateral path can lead to a negotiated settlement in Central America, which could contain the Sandinistas and support those Nicaraguans genuinely interested in pluralism. But this is less certain.

The issue of whether the contras are effective in encouraging negotiating flexibility by the Sandinistas or counterproductive in providing domestic support for the regime is moot, since the administration is not interested in negotiations. The administration believes negotiating with the Sandinistas is useless, except to mollify Democratic critics, since they do not believe the Sandinistas would fulfill an agreement, and they don't trust the Contadora countries to enforce one.

Therefore, a vote for the contras is a vote for a strategy to polarize Nicaragua and divide and conquer the Sandinistas. The embargo is part of this strategy, which encourages the middle class to leave Nicaragua and transfer its legitimacy to the contras while forcing the Sandinistas into a closer relationship with the Soviets. The fewer moderates left in Nicaragua the easier it is to argue that Nicaragua is a Stalinist regime.

Once Congress openly invests in the contras, it will become increasingly difficult to abandon them, particularly as the new moderate recruits will make the con- tras stronger and more legitimate. However, they will never get strong enough to defeat the Sandinis- tas militarily without direct help from the United States. This strategy will produce a regime as dependent on the Soviets, as barren of a moderate opposition and as much of a threat to its neighbors as some in the Reagan administration currently believe is the case -- but isn't. Then, the choice will be inaction or intervention.

Today, there is still a better alternative, but it requires a clearer statement of objectives and a better understanding of the effective sources of leverage against the Sandinistas. Our primary interest is to preclude Nicaragua's receiving sophisticated offensive weaponry or being used by the Soviet Union or Cuba as a base. A bipartisan congressional statement on this issue should not be difficult, and indeed, the Nicaraguans and the Soviets have already received this message.

A second interest is to prevent Nicaragua from subverting its neighbors, and a third is to encourage democracy. The best means for achieving these last two interests happily coincide with a fourth interest, which is to pursue a strategy in consultation and coordination with our democratic friends in the region. The administration's unilateral strategy undermines these interests. Actions such as the embargo force those Latin American governments, who were becoming critical of the Sandinistas, to defend them.

The essence of a good strategy is to reinforce Latin American pressure on Nicaragua, not transform it into support or replace it. Over the long term, the fear of isolation from Latin America and Western Europe is a more effective source of influence on the Sandinistas than the contras or, frankly, anything the United States can do, short of intervention.

So the question is how to transform a bilateral confrontation, which makes the Sandinistas look heroic and the United States look foolish, into a multilateral strategy. Evidence of Nicaraguan subversion should not be published as a State Department white paper; it should be brought to the Organization of American States by the affected countries, and the United States should support these efforts. When the evidence is sufficiently persuasive, the affected countries should seek sanctions against Nicaragua. The threat of such sanctions would be a powerful deterrent.

In consultations with the Contadora countries and others in Latin America, the United States should indicate that in the absence of multilateral support, it is phasing out aid to the contras, and looks toward a joint approach to encourage the Sandinistas to begin a genuine dialogue with their opposition. The United States should encourage moderate leaders to stay in Nicaragua, not leave, and seek peaceful means of influencing the government.

Other than the issue of Nicaragua's military relations with the Soviet bloc, Nicaragua does not constitute a security threat to the United States, but to its neighbors. We should respect Contadora to pursue their own security interests, making clear that we will support them, not fight for them.

If the administration could persuade a bipartisan Congressional group that it were genuinely interested in negotiating with the Sandinistas and supporting Contadora, then within a multilateral strategy, sup- porting the contras might make sense, but that is not the case. In the context of the administration's strategy, an endorsement and investment in the contras is a step down the wrong path. The administration may not want to intervene, but the logic of its policy will take us to a point where the other options will be worse.