It's time to shed the myths about El Salvador, and come together behind a bipartisan policy based upon the truth. The truth is that both the defenders and the critics of El Salvador have a point, and U.S. policy must embrace the legitimate concerns of both.

The truth is that after five democratic elections, El Salvador has changed profoundly in the past decade -- but also that it has not changed enough. Salvadoran political leaders who a few years ago never spoke to each other, who loathed and feared each other today sit as members of an Inter-Party Commission negotiating revolutionary changes in the country's political and judicial system. (Last week they agreed to add 24 new at-large seats to the 60-member National Assembly for the March 1991 elections.) In recent months, the elected president of the country has put on the table proposals for changes in the structure and size of the armed forces that would have gotten a Salvadoran leftist killed less than a decade ago.

El Salvador's economy, despite war and earthquake and the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement, is beginning to grow. And although the poor are still poor, one out of every five acres of cultivable land has been redistributed to campesinos and cooperatives.

We Americans rarely recognize, let alone acknowledge, those changes, in part because we don't want to whitewash the continuing atrocities of the political right. But we will not confront the atrocities better if we fail to acknowledge real progress; we will only undermine those responsible for democratic change and demoralize ourselves.

The vast majority of Salvadorans do not want the United States to walk away; they want us to use our influence more effectively and decisively to stop abuses of human rights and support the rule of law. Every year the United States has supported El Salvador, political violence has gone down. Still, political violence continues, no senior officer has been convicted of human rights abuses -- though two face trial today -- and human rights abuses by the FMLN or by the armed forces are rarely punished under the law.

Too often in the past we have charged up the mountain on human rights and then retreated in the face of intransigence by the armed forces, because we have shrunk from the danger of cutting military aid in the middle of a war waged by a murderous and committed guerrilla army. That is still no easy choice, but it is far easier to face if Congress and the executive branch are sending clear signals that the United States is committed both to the defense of human rights and to El Salvador's security.

In his inaugural address, President Cristiani called for negotiations to end the war. He has weeded out more human rights abusers from the senior ranks of the military in 19 months than his well-intentioned and courageous predecessor was able to do in five years, though he has not weeded out enough. The FMLN systematically set out to close the political space that was opening up by assassinating civilians and family members of the military. They succeeded with a vengeance in their offensive in November, albeit only temporarily.

The Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter were slaughtered in November, also by members of the Salvadoran armed forces, and that atrocity has rightly become a turning point for U.S. policy. Either justice will be done or military aid will be cut. The armed forces cannot cover up this crime and expect the American people, Congress and the administration to look the other way.

Finally, we need to tell the truth about the current negotiations. Rep. Joe Moakley, whom no one considers soft on El Salvador's abuses, rightly denounced the FMLN on Sept. 5 for threatening another military offensive, and labeled the FMLN's negotiating proposal "particularly extreme and unrealistic."

The truth is this: The government of El Salvador has called for nonstop negotiations, and the FMLN has refused; the government has called on the U.N. to offer compromise proposals, and the FMLN has said no. The government to date has offered to transfer security forces to civilian control, abolish civil defense units at the start of a cease-fire and immediate reaction battalions at the close; reduce the size of the army by 60 percent and invited the United Nations to monitor and protect human rights. These concessions may not be enough yet to secure a final settlement, but they are serious and deserve a serious response. The FMLN has responded by raising its demands with each new session and stonewallling on a cease-fire.

The challenge for the United States is to incorporate all these disparate truths into one principled, bipartisan policy. To all sides, our message is: It is time to end the war through negotiations; the search for military victory by either side is a formula for endless destruction and suffering. Peace requires not just the absence of war, but safe political space and personal security for all Salvadorans and civilian control over the military must exist in fact as well as in name.

To the FMLN: If you are prepared, as the government is, to negotiate that kind of peace, then this war and the suffering can end soon. But an FMLN strategy to stall in negotiations or to launch a new offensive hoping to provoke abuses and play on U.S. political divisions will not succeed. We are not going to get on our helicopters, go home and abandon the people of El Salvador to you. To the violent right: The sins of your enemies do not justify your own. Not only must justice be done in the Jesuits' case, but justice and the rule of law must be established in El Salvador to sustain the support of the American people. To the Democratic center: Your suffering and struggle have not been in vain. Together we will stay the course, and you will win the peace with freedom for which you have paid so dearly.

The writer is assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.