It is not all that important, I suppose, what a government says when it engages in the game of tit for tat. This is the game being played by America and Nicaragua in which one country and then the other takes turns kicking out each other's diplomats.

It is a silly and depressing game, made all the more silly and depressing because merely by playing it, we lose.

The game started, you will recall, when Nicaragua accused three American diplomats of attempting to assassinate the country's foreign minister, Miguel d'Escoto, by passing him a poisoned bottle of brandy.

As assassination plots go, this one is so absurd as to be unbelievable--even if the CIA years ago did have a very clever plan to slip Fidel Castro a mickey to make his beard fall out. Still, the Nicaraguan charges are hard to believe.

But then so are the American ones. In retaliation for giving our three diplomats the boot, the State Department ordered Nicaragua to close its consulates in six U.S. cities--New York, Miami, San Francisco, Houston, New Orleans and Los Angeles--saying they had been used for spying. It expelled about 21 diplomats, a retaliation ratio, if there is such a thing, of about seven to one.

This is the game we have played for years with the Soviets, but as silly as it is, they are at least our size and their "spies" are very often the real McCoy.

Nicaragua is a different case entirely. It is a smaller country, in fact a very small one, which either by design or out of fear threw a clumsy insult our way and--to the reported consternation of its own people--got taken seriously.

By doing this, not only have we inflated Nicaragua's standing, but we also have diminished our own by playing its game and saying things for which we are not willing to offer any evidence. After all, if these consulates were spy centers, why were they allowed to operate all this time and what exactly were the Nicaraguans spying on in New Orleans? Dixieland jazz?

If this sinking to the other guy's level were limited to mere rhetoric, it would be bad enough. But the administration seems determined to see much of Latin America through some sort of magnifying glass, blowing threats out of proportion and giving these regimes a standing and popularity that they would otherwise not have. The Sandinista regime in Nicaragua is either a brat or a paranoid of a regime, but it is not exactly a world power.

Nevertheless, it has somehow become public enemy number one, so threatening to hemispheric peace that the arrival of every Soviet boat is photographed from above and defensive artillery is shown to the American people as if it were MXs aimed at Lafayette Park. So great is the perceived danger that our government has been frank about its intentions. The Sandinista regime has to go.

In fact, all across the board we are yelling and screaming about countries that until recently were considered little more than settings for dippy musicals and whose most lethal weapons were rum drinks.

Now one kind of naivete has been replaced by another. Grenada all of a sudden is an enemy, armed to the teeth with, of all things, a world-class airport. Surinam, a thuggish regime to be sure but hardly a threat, has got to go and Castro has been turned into some sort of tropical version of the Godfather--up to his beard in the dope traffic.

All of this has made wonderful headlines. None of this, though, has been proven. The distinction between truth and propaganda has become blurred and a great government has engaged in shouting matches on late-night television with representatives of governments no one ever heard of. Sometimes, it seems that the fate of the Western Hemisphere will be settled on Nightline.

There is a total loss of perspective here, no recognition of who we are and what we stand for. We are paying our adversaries compliments by our willingness to adopt their tactics, treating them as major threats. We match their machismo with ours--and then some--fighting their fight on their terms. It is a fight we can only lose. After all, we are better than they are. It is time we acted that way.