According to President Reagan, the choice facing the American people (and Congress) is one of supporting his Central American policy or of losing the whole region. That, however, is not the choice. To suggest that it is is to stand the problem on its head. The fact is that Mr. Reagan's approach has failed to produce any improvement in Central America; on the contrary, it is leading only toward an ever more dangerous situation. If it is carried to its logical conclusion, the United States will have a foreign policy disaster on its hands.
The real choice, then, is whether to pursue a badly flawed policy or to try more encouraging alternatives.
How might the administration have better addressed the problem? How might it still do so?
First of all, emphasis should all along have been placed on bringing about carefully constructed and verifiable accords - accords which answer legitimate US security concerns, provide for both negotiations and elections in El Salvador , and impose institutional restraints on the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Long before the Contadora group of Latin American leaders came into being, the US should have encouraged a multilateral diplomatic effort aimed at (a) stopping all cross-border support for guerrillas, (b) placing limitations on armies and armaments, (c) bringing about the withdrawal of foreign military personnel and limiting outside military aid, and (d) creating an international peacekeeping force to ensure compliance with these provisions.
Concomitantly, the US should have encouraged negotiations in El Salvador, possibly under the auspices of other regional governments, aimed first at bringing about a ceasefire and then conditions under which really meaningful elections, in which all sides could participate, might be held.
All this was feasible. Perhaps such options, or variations of them, still are. The other side has for some time been signaling its readiness to talk. As early as 1981, the Nicaraguans and Cubans expressed an interest in negotiations. In March of 1982 the Mexican president proposed a peace plan for the area and made it clear he was willing to take the lead in mediation efforts. Perhaps his ''plan'' did not fully address our concerns, but surely it offered a useful base from which to begin negotiations. It was worth exploring. Did the US do so? Of course not.
Indeed, while publicly insisting it was willing to negotiate, the Reagan administration sidestepped all opportunities to do so. When in August of 1982 the Sandinistas handed us a diplomatic note offering to sit down and negotiate all issues in disagreement between us, the administration did not even answer the note. Shortly thereafter, the Mexican and Venezuelan governments offered to play a mediating role. That too was ignored, as were several overtures from Cuba's Castro.
In international politics, rarely does anyone trust anyone else. It is imprudent to take overtures from the other side at face value. It is equally imprudent, however, not to fully explore them. This the Reagan administration did not do. Rather, it pushed ahead blindly with its secret war against Nicaragua, and with the same old approach in El Salvador.
Why? Because it remained convinced that it could win in El Salvador without a full negotiating process and that if it just kept up the pressure in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas, in time, would crumble. It therefore had no interest in negotiations. They were something simply to be finessed.
Thus, in response to congressional pressures and to assuage public conerns, the President appointed Richard Stone as his chief negotiator. But meanwhile the secret war was stepped up and there was no change in our basic position in El Salvador. So long as those limitations were imposed upon him, Mr. Stone's talks were and are likely to go nowhere. When public skepticism remained high despite the Stone charade, Mr. Reagan resorted to still another public relations gimmick: appointing Henry Kissinger to head a commission.
In mid-July new openings for negotiations emerged. The Contadora group proposed a 10-point peace plan. In response, the Nicaraguans brought forth a six-point program which went a long way toward addressing US concerns. For his part, Castro said he would remove Cuban advisers from and halt arms shipments to the area if the US would do likewise.
And what was the US response to all this? Why, to send the fleet, to announce what amounts to the deployment of some 4,000 troops to Honduras, and to step up US support for the covert operation against Nicaragua. Rather than helping to reduce tensions, Washington was increasing them.
When this rang alarm bells in the US, the administration tried to claim that sending the fleet had scared the other side into offering to negotiate. Never mind that publication of the Nicaraguan six-point program predated the announcement of our military maneuvers. And never mind that the Cubans and Nicaraguans had been offering to negotiate for more than a year. These are details the administration hopes everyone will forget.
In keeping with its past record of saying one thing and then doing the exact opposite, the administration again reiterated its support for the Contadora initiative, even while continuing to impede its efforts. For example, the administration pointedly discouraged the Hondurans from participating in bilateral talks with the Nicaraguans under Contadora auspices. And, rather than seizing the opportunity for serious negotiations offered by the six-point Nicaraguan proposal, the administration immediately began to back away. The President suggested that we were unlikely ever to be able to reach an agreement with the Sandinistas.
Castro's proposals also were sidestepped. President Reagan said they were encouraging, but other administration spokesmen then made it clear that the US had no intention of discussing the matter with Castro and had no hopes that anything would come of his proposal.
Perhaps the vote in the House of Representatives to cut off US support for the contras, plus rising public concern over US military moves in the area, may yet convince the administration that it is time to review the bidding and begin a new approach. Let us hope it may be induced to get down to serious negotiations.
But don't count on it. Too much evidence points in the other direction.
For example, the President's recent remark that the Organization of American States (OAS) would be a better forum for discussions than the Contadora group may be a portent of things to come. Neither Nicaragua nor Cuba would ever accept OAS mediation.
Moving talks to that forum would be the best way to kill them. Which may be just what the Reagan administration wants. It could then get on with its efforts to overthrow the Sandinistas unimpeded by diplomatic diversions - and never mind if the inevitable result is an armed conflict.