WHAT WAS A revealing juxtaposition of stories about Central America on the front page yesterday. One story reported that, of three American military advisers found by newsmen to have been carrying combat weapons, rather than the permitted personal arms, in a Salvadoran town, one had been ordered out the country and the other two reprimanded. The second story summarized the "broad program of U.S. planning and action . . . including the encouragement of political and paramilitary operations by other governments against the Cuban presence in Nicaragua" that the administration has authorized in the Central American- Caribbean region as a whole.

Think about that pairing of stories for a moment. On the one hand, a few of the 50 advisers in El Salvador were disciplined for stepping over their guidelines. A television camera had caught one of them with an M16--and, if you noticed, also a briefcase. If these men broke the guidelines, they should have been disciplined. The administration, which has promised to keep the advisers out of combat situations, had to discipline them in order to show an edgy American public that it is as good as its word. Still you have to be impressed by the lengths to which the administration is going in order to avoid both the reality and appearance of direct military participation. The lesson we draw is not that the administration is cheating at the military margin in El Salvador but that it is being scrupulously sensitive to the political consensus in the United States.

As an account of the administration's overall approach, its key feature is the lack of a military core. We think this is right: at this point the costs of a military enterprise in El Salvador, in political and diplomatic terms, would likely be all together disproporationate to the forseeable gains. This judgment, which the administration evidently shares, has forced it to explore a range of alternatives even as it plans somewhat grimly for military contigencies outside the immediate battle zone. From the published account, it is not entirely clear what is being just talked about and what is actually going to be done in the region, but it is clear that having forsaken a direct military role, the administration is looking determindedly for substitute policies, including CIA-sponsored political and para-military operations by other governments and by Nicaraguan exiles against the "Cuban presence in Nicaragua" and against Nicaragua.

>There is a problem here. The American purpose is, as we understand it, simply to get Nicaragua and Cuba to stop their sponsorship of the insurgency in El Salvador. But for that support, there would be no American military aid. There was none until Jimmy Carter decided--correctly, we feel--that the Nicaraguan-Cuban hand compelled the United States to end the no-aid policy it had adopted on account of the human rights situation and to start bracing the Salvadoran armed forces against foreign intervention.

>What needs to be asked now, however, is whether the way to keep Cuba and Nicaragua from "destablizing" El Salvador is for the United States, even through intermediaries, to try to "destablize" Nicaragua or Cuba? The United States has been down that road before in various places in the region, with dismal results. Rather than trying, as the CIA reportedly has elaborated in a secret $19 million plan, to build a "broad political opposition to the Sandinista rule in Nicaragua," why not a greater effort to build broad political support for democratic rule in El Salvador? The administration's military self- denial there is commendable. That does not mean that anything else goes.

There reamins a serious question about the importance of the foreign input to the local turmoil in El Salvador. The question will persist, since it is self-evident that the country's social and economic tensions are sharp enough in themselves to sustain high domestic violence. The proper