Central America continues to be a problem Americans wish would go away. Most Americans do not even know which side the United States supports in El Salvador and Nicaragua. According to a recent survey. Yet a problem so complex as civil war will not go away quickly. The United States - and the American public - will have to be prepared for a long, sustained effort if the fragile forces of democracy are to prevail against the inroads of Marxist influence.
This will require, in turn, a bipartisan consensus on US policy. Such a consensus would make it possible for the President and Congress to work together on economic and military aid, instead of constantly battling each other on the issue - a confrontation that only sows confusion in Central America.
It is encouraging, therefore, that a move is now under way in Congress to try to build such a consensus. Senators Charles Mathias, Republican, and Henry Jackson, Democrat, have introduced a resolution calling on the President to convene a national bipartisan commission to address the problems of security, poverty, and democratic development in Central America. Its mandate would be to ''build the necessary national consensus on a comprehensive United States policy for the region.''
The resolution has more than 30 sponsors; its counterpart in the House is also expected to gather good support. Most important, however, the Reagan administration is open to the idea and talking with lawmakers about it. This would not be unlike the bipartisan commissions set up to consider social security and the MX missile. In each case it was possible to work out legislative compromises and move forward on a politically sensitive national issue. President Reagan therefore recognizes the usefulness of such an approach. If there is a key sticking point at the moment, it seems to be on the matter of who would be chosen to serve on the commission. Needless to say, to be credible the group would need to include notables from various walks of life who could dispassionately look at the evidence and come up with recommendations for the President that could command broad public support.
Behind the concept is the sensible recognition that the Central American problem cannot be solved by military means. Present US policies seem to be leading nowhere. In Senator Mathias's words, ''poverty is the enemy.'' Hence it may require something on the order of a Marshall Plan to defeat that enemy. Whether the American people would back a massive aid program is uncertain, given the nation's huge budget deficits. But certainly Americans would find such a course far more palatable than the commitment of US troops - especially if recommended by a bipartisan commission.
There are no quick answers to the Central American dilemma, as much as the administration may want them. But it would ease the anguish for all if the United States government could at least decide on the direction in which it wants to go - and speak with one voice. A bipartisan commission could prove a helpful step and deserves public support.