The president's new peace proposal for Nicaragua may mark a significant turning point in the administration's attitude toward the struggle in that country. In recent weeks, the administration has been indicating that its objective is the capitulation of the Sandinistas. But in his current proposal, the president emphasizes negotiation as the course to be followed in trying to deal with the problems, and implies willingness to support a negotiated solution that might be worked out between the parties. If it does nothing else, the proposal puts emphasis on a negotiated rather than a military solution to the fighting in Nicaragua. To that extent, it is a welcome move.

As to the specifics of the president's new plan, however, the fact is that it really isn't new, and it isn't really his. The plan was previously put forward by the contras and rejected by the Sandinistas several weeks ago. The only truly new part of the plan has to do with the use of the $14 million in aid to be made available by the United States to the contras.

Here the problem is that the proposal would offer much to the contras and little to the Sandinistas. Indeed, the contras can't lose. The Sandinistas are called upon to negotiate based on the offer made by the contras a month ago. If the Sandinistas persist in their refusal to do so, then, under the plan, the United States would be able to resume military aid to the contras. If the Sandinistas do undertake to negotiate but don't reach agreement with the contras within 60 days, then the contras can refuse to prolong the negotiations, and the United States will be free to resume military aid to them.

It is not too difficult to see why the Sandinistas would hesitate to enter into negotiations that promise legitimization of military aid to the contras if, within a designated time, the Sandinistas have not come to agreement with them.

Second, the president is asking Congress to approve indirectly what it has indicated it would not approve directly. It is obvious that while the president's proposal would make $14 million available to the contras for humanitarian purposes, this would free up other contra funds for the acquisition of military equipment and supplies.

It is also worth noting that in El Salvador, the United States has strenuously objected to "power sharing" between the government and the opposition group. But in the current proposal, the plan is for the government of Nicaragua to engage in negotiations with the contras that would seem to call for precisely the kind of "power sharing" previously denounced by the United States.

Is there another way to aproach the situation that might have a greater prospect for success and also advance the administration's announced objectives?

The Contadora nations -- Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela -- have been trying to find a basis for peaceful settlement of the fighting in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America. It is regrettable that the United States did not consult with the Contadora group prior to the announcement of the new approach in Nicaragua. It is not too late, however, for the United States now to join with the Contadora group in calling for a dialogue in Nicaragua between the Sandinistas and the contras, under the aegis of Contadora and with the mediation of the Catholic Church.

There would be no preconditions for such a dialogue, and both sides would be given a full opportunity to state their positions in order to advance the prospect for national reconciliation and a fair and free election under international supervision. At the end of a designated period, the United States could reexamine the situation and determine whether humanitarian or other aid to the contras would be appropriate and necessary in the light of the facts as they have evolved.

The difference between this approach and the one set forth in the president's proposal is that the discussions between parties in Nicaragua would take place under the auspices of the Contadora nations, which have won the respect of both sides, and the United States will not hold the threat of military support for the contras over the negotiations. The Sandinistas would know, however, that if they refuse to participate in such a dialogue, they will have strengthened the case for aid to the contras in a way that the administration itself has not been able to do.