Jeane Kirkpatrick op-ed, May 26 echoes the growing anxiety in official Washington that the Contadora process might actually result in a peace treaty among the five Central American republics. This is the same Contadora process for which President Reagan expressed "strong support," for which administration officials have time and again pledged U.S. backing and which Congress has overwhelmingly endorsed.

But now that the Contadora efforts might bear fruit, some members of the administration and Congress are scrambling to block a peace settlement. A recent Pentagon study concluded that the Contadora accords, if signed, would lead to a wider war directly involving U.S. forces. The administration has undercut its special envoy to Central America, Philip Habib, by denouncing as erroneous and imprecise his letter to Rep. Jim Slattery suggesting the United States would abide by a treaty if Nicaragua did so as well. Rep. Jack Kemp called for Habib's ouster.

*Kirkpatrick and others do not object to the treaty itself. They simply assert that Nicaragua is bound to flout any treaty. The implication is that negotiations with the Sandinistas are useless and that Contadora offers no hope of resolving the conflicts in Central America.

No one can be sure that Nicaragua will, in fact, honor the obligations of a treaty. But the Contadora countries are prepared to assume the risks of Nicaragua's noncompliance. So apparently are Nicaragua's neighbors, whose security would be far more threatened by Sandinista violations than that of the United States. These nations believe that the Contadora accords would constrain Nicaragua's behavior and provide necessary mechanisms for detecting and remedying violations.

What policy alternatives do treaty opponents offer? Only one: continued U.S. assistance to the contras -- not to achieve a negotiated settlement, but rather to unseat the Sandinista regime. Advocates of this course must either believe that the contras can defeat the Sandinista army or be prepared to finance a war for many years to come.

But there is no basis for believing the contras can achieve military victory. The Sandinistas firmly control Nicaragua. Their army has the contras on the run. The contra leadership is divided and unable to turn dissatisfaction with the Sandinista government into popular support for their insurgency. U.S. military and logistic aid and Honduran sanctuary can keep the contra insurgency alive, but they cannot make it succeed.

Short of direct U.S. military action, the only real alternative to a Contadora treaty is a protracted war. Such a war would intensify the security problems of Nicaragua's neighbors. The Sandinistas would continue to expand their armed forces, increase the size and sophistication of their weapons acquired from the Soviet bloc and rely more heavily on military advisers from those countries.

Internal repression in Nicaragua would worsen as the war continued. Democratic rule throughout Central America would be threatened as the war fueled political polarization and militarization. Economic development would be postponed, and scarce resources would be diverted to the military. Refugees would place ever greater burdens on the region's battered economies. And the Nicaraguan people would suffer.

There is one alternative to protracted war that is rarely discussed: an outright Sandinista victory over the contras. Those who claim the Sandinistas would not respect a carefully framed and verifiable treaty could only expect the worst from this outcome. They'd be the first to cry for U.S. military intervention.

It is not surprising that treaty opponents avoid discussing the alternatives to a negotiated settlement. They know that neither Congress nor the American people are prepared to accept a policy that would require either indefinite U.S. support for a protracted war or the sending of U.S. troops to fight in Central America. A peace treaty is the better choice.