EVEN as cold-war confrontation wanes in Europe, it appears to be flaring over Central America. President Bush is being lobbied to press hard for a cut-off of Soviet military aid to Nicaragua's Sandinistas and El Salvador's rebels during this weekend's t^ete-`a-t^ete off Malta. That is certainly appropriate, especially since Mr. Gorbachev has already pledged such a cut-off. But the US president shouldn't act on the assumption that Gorbachev holds the crucial strings in Central America - that the Ortegas and Castros and FMLN commanders necessarily dance to a Soviet tune.
Soviet influence with leftist regimes in the hemisphere is substantial. They depend on economic and military aid from Moscow. But their claim to legitimacy rests on their role as spearheads of popular revolution. The issues that bolster the Sandinistas and keep the Salvadoran guerrillas fighting are embedded in the social inequities and history of their societies. Pinching shut the long arms pipeline from Moscow will probably not mean a quick stop to the shooting. For one thing, both Cuba and Nicaragua have large stockpiles of weapons.
Still, more decisive Soviet action to stop the arms flow could be a useful ingredient in the region's preparation for peace. Another, equally important ingredient would be US agreement to reduce concurrently its own militarization of the region.
In El Salvador, certainly, the opposing sides appear as committed as ever to victory through violence - vows to ``get tough'' follow in the wake of assassinations and murders. Concerted pressures from the superpowers might help push combatants back from an ever-bloodier civil war.
A framework for Central American peace exists in the Arias peace plan, which outlines steps toward resolving the region's conflicts through political, rather than military, means. Central Americans themselves must take the lead in implementing the plan, but outsiders can help.
The coming election in Nicaragua will be a crucial test of this approach. Presidents Bush and Gorbachev should unite in using their influence to help insure the integrity of that election.