Remember El Salvador? It's the Central American country whose civil war Americans once regarded as the key arena of the region's destiny. Two events removed it from the center of American attention. The war and the stakes grew in Nicaragua. And El Salvador elected Jose Napoleon Duarte president, in 1984, and set out on what seemed a slow but reasonably sure road to stability under a democratic regime.

Only now is El Salvador coming back into American focus. Again, two events explain the turn. The sense spreads that things do not go so well as Americans had hoped. And the long-inert political dialogue between the Duarte government and the guerrillas and politicians of the resistance may now be resumed.

Mr. Duarte's difficulties are deceptive. Part of the growing agitation in the streets against him arises directly from the democratization he made possible. Another part arises from his success in imposing a hard austerity program that critics had claimed he was too weak to install. The resistance conducts heartless warfare against civilian targets and then tries to blame Mr. Duarte for the popular hardship that results. The resistance kidnaps his daughter, leading him to make a deal for her return that offends some in the military command, and then charges that he fails to end altogether the military's much diminished but continuing abuses against civilians.

Earlier this spring Mr. Duarte conditioned a resumption of talks with the guerrillas on the opening of talks in Nicaragua. Now he has set aside that linkage. The left claims he is weakening. But the guerrillas have their own difficulties, especially in the field against the improved Salvadoran armed forces. American support for Mr. Duarte remains firm. The guerrillas are also mindful that a Contadora treaty, if it came, would threaten what the House Intelligence Committee has called their "lifeline" from the Sandinistas.

sk,2 When the earlier talks flagged, the two sides were far apart. As in Nicaragua, the government demanded that the opposition join the official political process, and the opposition demanded that the government open up a new process. No painless compromises are in store; Zimbabwe is sometimes spoken of as a model, but it is not a precisely relevant or comforting one. The war, however, is savage. "Humanizing the conflict," a phrase referring to methods of lightening the burden on noncombatants, deserves to be at the top of the agenda. This possibility is the glimmer in El Salvador.