In the upcoming Senate debate on contra aid, our goal should be to define a long-term policy toward Nicaragua and the region.

The debate so far seems at times to have spawned a caricature of U.S. policy options. If the United States fails to provide funds to the Nicaraguan rebels, one of two things will happen: the waters around San Diego will turn red; or the Sandinista leaders will feel serene and begin democratizing their country.

If only the issues were so clear. Take, for example, the principal actors. The U.S.-backed contras, FDN/UNO, remain controversial among Nicaraguans and Americans. This has been the case largely because of their ill-defined goals and a sometimes bleak record on human rights. Furthermore, the several contra groups in Nicaragua have been unable -- often unwilling -- to unify behind an agreed set of objectives and to coordinate their efforts.

The Sandinista leadership has been far from a palliative for its people or neighbors during its six years in power. In recent months it has openly instituted measures that violate human rights and more boldly than ever underscore the antidemocratic character of a force, which at one time promised to embody the hopes of the Nicaraguan people. At the same time, the government has continued to tamper in the internal affairs of its neighbors and encouraged the consolidation of the Soviet and Cuban presence and influence.

The United States does have an inescapable interest in these problems and events. Regional security is a valid concern and, tempting as it may seem, we cannot simply turn away from the situation in Nicaragua.

We have legitimate fears about the goals of the Sandinista leadership -- particularly the export of revolution to Nicaragua's neighbors. At the same time, the Sandinistas have much to fear from us. We are a powerful nation, and they know that we have a great interest in what happens in this hemisphere and that we will do what we must to ensure stability in the region.

These considerations should be translated into a U.S. policy aimed at helping to advance the democratic aspirations of the Nicaraguan people and to support efforts by our Latin American neighbors to ensure regional stability.

The problems of Nicaragua and its relations with its neighbors do not lend themselves to quick or easy solutions. We believe that only through a multi-track approach can pressure be effectively brought to bear on the Sandinista government to move toward pluralism and democracy and to cease being a threat to regional security.

While the details may vary, such an approach would combine aggressive diplomatic initiatives with efforts to unify, broaden and reform the contras. U.S. aid would be tied to the results of diplomatic endeavors, Sandinista willingness to respect the security of its neighbors and the fundamental rights of its citizens, and the responsiveness of the contra groups to reform efforts.

Under this approach, 25 percent of the funds requested by the president would be made immediately available, to be apportioned among the three major opposition groups, FDN/UNO, BOS and Misurasata. The purpose of this initial outlay would be to promote the formation of the opposition groups into a unified, broadly based, coordinated democratic federation.

The remaining funds would be withheld for a period of not less than 90 days, pending implementation of a multi-tracked U.S. policy aimed at promoting regional security through the principles developed by Latin American nations through the Contadora process.

The policy would include vigorous support of the Contadora negotiating process, support for the proposal recently announced by six opposition Nicaraguan political parties and a clear expression of willingness by the United States to enter unconditionally into direct negotiations with the Sandinista government.

It would also include promotion of unification and reform of the Nicaraguan opposition to broaden its base, coordinate its efforts, eliminate human rights abuses and establish a program for achieving representative democracy in Nicaragua.

An independent commission would be established to monitor and report to Congress on the status of negotiations and on progress toward restructuring the contras.

After 90 days, the remaining funds could be released on a scheduled basis, pending certification that:

the international negotiations offer no realistic prospect of an agreement;

the contra opposition has agreed in word and deed on reform measures to broaden its base, eliminate human rights abuses, and pursue a defined and coordinated program for achieving democracy in Nicaragua.

U.S. military aid would cease immediately under the following circumstances:

the Sandinista government conducts free elections;

restrictions on basic rights and freedoms are lifted by the Sandinista government;

all foreign military forces and advisors are withdrawn from Nicaragua and arms shipments are suspended.

The debate in the United States over our role in Nicaragua has been acrimonious and divisive -- particularly in recent weeks. Perhaps it is too late for us to draw together on this issue. We think and hope not.