Former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick judges my efforts to promote peace in Central America as "bad politics" and "bad policy" {op-ed, Sept. 21}. Leave aside the politics. The issue is whether the Guatemala City accord, signed by the five Central American presidents, represents good policy. Is it good for that distressed region and for the United States?

Ambassador Kirkpatrick asks why I joined with President Reagan to develop a peace proposal and then endorsed the Guatemala agreement, which is similar but not identical.

Frankly, we never supposed -- at least I didn't -- that the elected Central American leaders would adopt our suggestions verbatim, with no constructive contributions of their own. To ask that would be presumptuous and offensive. To expect it would be naive. Latin leaders have both pride and ability. They are the ones who must carry out the peace agreement and live with it. Our goal was to encourage and stimulate a workable accord of their authorship.

A number of Central American leaders have told me that the Reagan-Wright proposal served as the catalyst for the agreement hammered out in Guatemala City. Would there have been an agreement without this stimulus? Nobody can be sure. We do know that several prior attempts at peace have failed, in part because of our political disagreement in Washington. This time, the president and I felt that a show of basic bipartisan unity -- and a joint commitment to make peace our first priority -- would enhance U.S. credibility in the region.

Jeane Kirkpatrick seems to suggest that I should have publicly rejected the peace plan agreed to by the Central Americans themselves and held out instead for the Reagan-Wright proposal in toto. The reason I did not is simple. Peace cannot be imposed by outsiders. It must be desired by the parties in conflict and worked out voluntarily among them. At no point did I, nor President Reagan surely, imagine that the Central Americans had invite us to dictate the terms of their settlement. It's one thing for us to offer ingredients to be considered in their recipe for peace. It's quite another to try to stuff our cooking down their throats.

Mrs. Kirkpatrick asks whether I care that the Guatemala City plan "ignores vital U.S. interests in the region." Of course, if the five-nation plan did operate contrary to our vital interests, I most certainly would care. I do not think the plan does that. On the contrary, by promoting peace and stability, it promotes America's military, political and economic interests.

First, the plan calls for a cease-fire and declares that the nations will not allow their territories to be used to destabilize other governments. If implemented, these provisions can douse the most dangerous tinderbox in the Western Hemisphere, and allow the Pentagon to direct its attentions elsewhere.

Second, the plan provides for national reconciliation and democratization, including a respect for human rights, the organization of political parties and freedom of the press. What could be better? If Nicaragua follows through with these steps, then the real American interests in the region -- our concern that Central Americans have the right to self-determination -- will surely be advanced.

Third, an end to the insurgencies and counterinsurgencies in Central America can permit them the investment needed for boosting economic growth. Revitalizing that region's war-weary economies would provide markets for U.S. exports and might even enable those countries to earn the foreign exchange needed to repay their debts. It also would assist the Central American democracies in confronting their real enemies -- poverty, joblessness, hunger, and disease.

Ambassador Kirkpatrick doubts that the Sandinistas "can bring themselves to permit freedom to their opponents." She says that "the comandantes are addicted to the use of force." Whether or not that was true in the past, the Nicaraguan government has shown good faith during the past few weeks in appointing a Reconciliation Commission headed by Cardinal Obando y Bravo and in permitting the opposition newspaper La Prensa and the Catholic radio station to reopen free of censorship. If we conclude that the Sandinistas are wholly irredeemable, then we really wouldn't believe in the Reagan-Wright plan either. It calls on them to do these identical things

A few days ago, in his address to the members of Congress, President Arias declared "We are convinced that the risks we run in the struggle for peace will always be less than the irreparable cost of war." If Costa Rica, with no standing army and located just next door to Nicaragua, is willing to take such a risk for peace, why shouldn't we? For the first time in a very long while, the peace process is moving again. To me, that's good news, good policy -- and maybe even good politics.

Rep. Wright (D-Texas) is speaker of the House.