Once upon a time, there were no American combat troops in Lebanon. Then 1,500 marines were sent there to keep the peace, but they stayed even when there was no peace to keep. To help them keep the peace that was not there, an aircraft carrier was brought up and soon it was authorized to fire at those who were firing at the marines who were there to keep the peace that did not exist.

And once upon a time, there were no American combat troops in Central America. Then there were 55 military advisers in El Salvador and then 5,000 troops on a training exercise in Honduras and then a fleet off both coasts of Nicaragua, which was being attacked by an army of exiles created and financed by the United States, which was in the area to keep peace.

This was all very confusing to the people of the United States, but its leaders kept saying they had a plan. The chief leader was the president, who called the army of exiles "freedom fighters" even though some of them once fought for a ruthless dictator. He talked that way. On the Middle East, for instance, he once said that Israeli settlements on the West Bank were legal when the State Department said they were not, then called for a halt in their construction anyway.

This, though, was just the beginning. The president fired his secretary of state, chose an economist as his successor and took as his national security adviser a state judge with almost no experience in foreign affairs. The president then announced a peace plan for the Middle East and promptly went on a short vacation. It hardly mattered. Everyone rejected the plan anyway.

Then the new secretary of state flew off to the Middle East. He said he was going to a lot of places, among them Syria, but he did not check with them and they would not let him in. Ever-optimistic anyway, he predicted Syria would pull out of Lebanon and was chagrined to find that it would not. Instead, it helped to escalate the civil war there, endangering the lives of the marines who were there to keep the peace that did not exist. The president explained this by saying that after years of incredibly bloody civil war in Lebanon, he did not think it would resume with such vehemence. He talked that way.

In Central America, the new president sacked all the old ambassadors, replaced them with his own men, chose a career diplomat with no experience in the region to run policy and then, after a while, fired him. Then he chose a defeated senator with right-wing credentials to negotiate with the left-wing rebels in Central America and sent him off to a meeting that did not take place. When one finally did, nothing happened.

None of this chagrined either the president or the secretary of state or the national security adviser. When it came to Lebanon, for instance, they said that they did not want Congress to tie their hands. They would go their own way, thank you, and then they all got distracted by the downing of a Korean civilian airliner, which was very serious, but not so serious that anything serious had to be done about it.

Meanwhile, the Central American negotiator seemed to have flown off the edge of the world. He was hardly heard from. Also not heard from was the Libyan hit squad that had entered the country of America to kill its leaders. The leaders yelled and screamed and increased security, but the hit squad hit nobody and may still be circling the Washington Beltway, looking for a way to get off.

All of this was very compelling news and made everyone forget that the first order of business for the administration was to deal with international terrorism. It set up an agency to handle it, talked about it a lot, and then seemed to forget it--just like the peace plan and the Central American negotiator.

Meanwhile, the marines stayed in Lebanon to keep a peace that did not exist and the fleet stayed off both coasts of Nicaragua and the army of exiles the United States established was doing nothing much. And when the CBS Poll asked the American people what they thought of the government's Central American policy, they said they were confused.

The policy was working.