IT IS POSSIBLE to have more than a little sympathy for the generals who have just seized power in Turkey. In the Ataturk tradition, Turkey's armed forces have been notably apolitical, determined not to have their unity cracked and their reputation soiled by contact with politics. On two previous occasions -- in 1960 and 1971 -- when they pulled off coups, they made a mess of civilian things and handed power back to the politicians as soon as it was convenient. This time, again, the situation was desperate. For three months the parliament (as usual, it is a minority government) had been deadlocked on important anti-terrorism and tax legislation on account of a low political dispute. The government's inability to cope with terror was eliminating the few remaining traces of public faith in its capacity to do anything at all. The generals finally moved.

It is silly to issue a ritual lament for the demise of democracy. Turkey is no banana republic where fat and crooked generals come and go. It is no Greece where fascist-minded colonels have been known to lurk. It is a country whose political leaders have made strenuous efforts to make democracy work in harrowing economic and social circumstances, and whose military figures have a record of service that has earned them a respite from glib smears. In recent years, the Turks have not been popular favorites in the United States. Their obstinacy on the Cyprus issue, above all others, has rendered them vulnerable to the depredations of a Greek lobby for which Turks have no match. But in this crisis they are owed at least the understanding that Athens received while it was in colonels' hands.

The generals take over a country being pressed to the limit by its international creditors, including the United States, whose conditions for large loans and debt relief granted earlier this year involve grating austerity and painful structural reforms. The brimming popular resentments will now be trained directly on the military. The generals must also assume responsibility for checking the terrorism that sometimes reaches a death-per-hour rate. It is perhaps worth noting that the army was administering every third province even while civilians ostensibly ruled in Ankara, and terrorism was still rampant.

Two strains have been interwoven in American support of Turkey since World War II: containment of Soviet power and encouragement of democracy. The coup in Ankara dangerously narrows the interests the two countries share. This has got to be a major cause of anxiety for both of them.