THESE ARE DIFFICULT days for those who make the Reagan administration's foreign policy, but they are no easier for those who seek merely to understand it. The secretary of state has resigned, yet we are told we have no "need to know" the reason why. Our closest European allies are threatening to sue over vital trade issues, yet the president claims trans- Atlantic "disarray" is gone, and the allies "have confidence in us once again." The Middle East is exploding--both Arabs and Israel demand our active support, but the president says the situation is too "delicate" to tell us where we stand. Numerous accounts tell of a worsening situation in Central America, but the administration certifies that things are better.

The field is wide open for answers, or at the very least a cogent explanation of the administration's foreign policy philosophy as applied to real life. Members of any administration are understandably reluctant to undertake such tasks in writing while still embroiled in the nitty-gritty of ongoing policymaking. But perhaps someday Alexander M. Haig Jr. will write a book about why he thinks we should keep the Europeans happy and how to do it. Ed Meese will tell us how and why the administration decided to "go to the source" to combat the spread of Cuban communism and then, maybe, but not for sure, changed its mind. William Clark will explain the Reagan team's vision for lasting peace in the Middle East.

And maybe someday Jeane J. Kirkpatrick will write a book about the foreign policy question she has become most identified with--how best to promote democratic development, or at least benign stability, while avoiding the revolutionary overthrow, of authoritarian governments that are friendly to us but unfriendly to their own people.

So far, she hasn't done it. Instead, she offers Dictatorships and Double Standards, a volume of nine previously published essays on foreign policy and domestic politics that is a sometimes professorial, sometimes cranky litany of how others have failed in this and other endeavors in the past.

Kirkpatrick, who serves as Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, is a curious figure on the administration's foreign affairs team. Far from pronouncing herself even a deputy vicar of policy, she has gone to great lengths in public speeches to describe herself as an intellectual academic who somehow woke up to find herself in the spotlight without knowing how she got there or being sure she likes it. Although she has toned down recently, in her early days as ambassador she frequently described the United Nations as nothing more than a forum for America-baiting and useless rhetoric that may not be worth our membership.

Following her controversial meeting last year with South African military intelligence officers, a break with previous U.S. policy that prompted a call from the Congressional Black Caucus for her resignation, she protested that, as an academic, she was open to all points of view and did not feel bound to tell the State Department what she was up to. At other times, while calling herself as a mere messenger, not a maker, of administration policy, she has gone to significant lengths to manifest her disagreement with it--particularly when it put her at odds with Haig over issues like his backing for Britain during the Falkland Islands crisis.

But despite her apparent desire to be free of the constraints of official position that bind other members of the foreign policy team, Kirkpatrick is clearly influential. She is the first U.N. ambassador to hold cabinet rank. She reportedly has frequent personal access to the president and, according to news reports over the past several weeks, was one of the principal victors of the campaign to oust Haig. Like it or not, she must be considered a policymaker, and should share some responsibility at least for what goes into and comes out of administration decision making.

Originally published in the November 1980 issue of Commentary magazine, the title essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," is a criticism of how the Carter administration "lost" Nicaragua and Iran to hostile regimes through sloppy thinking, naivet,e and an excess of what Kirkpatrick calls "rationalism" that led it to believe there was no point fighting the role of history. Reagan legend holds that it was this critique, brought to President-elect Reagan's attention by Richard Allen, that landed Kirkpatrick her job.

Together with "U.S. Security and Latin America," another essay originally published by Commentary in January 1981, which also appears in this volume, it lays out the mistaken "affinity of liberalism, Christianity, and Marxist socialism" apparent among "liberals who are 'duped' time after time into supporting 'liberators' who turn out to be totalitarians, and among Left-leaning clerics whose attraction to a secular style of 'redemptive community' is stronger than their outrage at the hostility of socialist regimes to religion."

Well-meaning Carterites, with their misplaced belief in "globalism" as a means of lessening U.S. control of the world, and guilt about U.S. support for repressive regimes such as Somoza's in Nicaragua and the Shah of Iran, misinterpreted radical and Communist-led subversion as justified popular revolt. Rather than trying to preserve reliable, albeit somewhat distasteful allies, Kirkpatrick said, the Carter administration decided that change was inevitable, positive and controllable.

As Kirkpatrick pointed out at the time, a case can be made that, in both Nicaragua and Iran, it was none of the above. In place of the moderate regimes Carter hoped to promote in place of the Shah and Somoza, we now have the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Sandinistas. So, we waited for Reagan to do better in juxtaposing legitimate U.S. security interests and human rights and democratic concerns. The question was how. Kirkpatrick did not tell us then, and, since "Dictatorships and Double Standards" has not changed with another printing, she does not tell us now. The closest she came were a few somewhat sarcastic references to Carter's reluctance to use force to preserve the status quo. "Where once upon a time a President might have sent marines to ensure the protection of American strategic interests," she wrote in reference to Nicaragua and Iran, "there is no room for force in this world (Carter's) of progress and self determination. Force, the President told us (in a speech) at Notre Dame, does not work; that is the lesson he extracted from Vietnam."

Now that the Reagan administration has had 19 months to deal with similar questions, in countries like El Salvador, where the use of U.S. force has been ruled out publicly, it would be interesting to know from a major actor whether the power to help make actual policy has reaffirmed her belief that Carter was all wet, or given her some ideas about how to improve things. But anyone who wants to know where we are, where we are going, or how the Reagan team proposes we get there will not find the answers here.

The country has come so far since the 1980 elections that it is hard to imagine a great deal of interest in rehashing--or repeating the original hash--of what essentially is a professor's version of the mainline Republican foreign policy planks of the day and why the Democrats deserved to lose. While Kirkpatrick's opinions on where things went wrong certainly have been given additional cachet by virtue of her new prominence, that same prominence has elevated our expectations for new insight into how to make things right. The republication of her views on these subjects are symptomatic of a larger administration tendency, soe pme might call it an obsession where foreign policy is concerned, to define both problems and solutions in terms of the faults of its predecessor.

Having said the above, this reviewer realizes that to critique the substance of the essays themselves--rehashing what was said about them when they were published--is to risk being hoisted on one's own petard. But in the interests of accurate history and cogent future policymaking, it is perhaps useful to look briefly at the two most recent works in the Dictatorships and Double Standards collection--the "D and DS" essay itself, and "U.S. Security and Latin America"-- since they deal with what is described as Kirkpatrick's geographic specialty.

Some of the errors Kirkpatrick makes are small and specific. In an effort to show how the Carter administration, perhaps unwittingly but undeniably, collaborated in the overthrow of Somoza and the installation of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua, she says that, in June 1979, the month before Somoza's departure, "U.S. representatives William Bowdler and Lawrence Pezzulo had met with the FSLN . . ." Special U.S. envoy Bowdler did meet with Sandinista leaders. U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Lawrence Pezzulo, according to this reporter's recollection and that of Pezzullo himself, never did. The sentence goes on: ". . . the State Department undertook to apply the final squeeze to the Somoza regime--putting pressure on Israel to end arms sales, and working out an oil embargo to speed the capitulation of Somoza's forces." Pressure on Israel? Yes. Oil embargo? No.

Others are more general. Because the Carter administration felt Latin America should not receive special treatment in U.S. foreign policy, "U.S. assistance to the countries of Latin America declined steadily during the Carter years. By 1980, the administration was requesting only half as much economic aid for Latin America as a decade earlier." It is true that U.S. aid to Latin America declined during the 1970s, but the reason had more to do with the actions of Congress during Republican administrations during the early part of the decade when the most substantive declines in both military and economic aid occurred-- that mandated a refocusing of assistance toward the poorer countries of the Third World. And economic aid to Latin America steadily increased under Carter, with $227.5 million for all regional programs in fiscal 1978, $254.9 million for 1979, $288.7 million for 1980, and $377.3 million for 1981.

There is one Kirkpatrick comment on El Salvador that perhaps explains in part why the current administration's policy is having so much trouble. In seeking to explain why instability is a fact of life that must be either lived with or forcibly repressed--rather than a reflection of poor government or popular disastisfaction that should be urgently addressed-- she is curiously inaccurate on that country's recent political history. "Through most of the last fifty years," she notes, "politics in El Salvador was carried on through conventional political parties, occasional elections, military coups, student strikes, trade union actions--that is by the multiple means and in the multiple arenas common in Latin American politics." In fact, there were regularly-scheduled elections in which the army either cheated or ran alone. "Conventional" political parties were noticeably absent, during unbroken military rule in El Salvador (except for one military-civilian junta that lasted several months in 1960) from the time the generals took over in 1932 until 1979.

Minor matters, perhaps, but examples of the kind of fuzzy-headed thinking and misperception of history of which Kirkpatrick, as essayist, was so fond of accusing others. There are many more in this volume, but, then, most of them were brought up at the time. Criticizing the substance of Kirkpatrick's works provides about as many answers, and as much inspiration for today's problems as reading them.