The current antics of the Argentine government are further proof of the time-worn principle that a nation's craving to expand its territory is in inverse relation to its ability to manage its own affairs. Having long made a mess of their country's economy and politics, Argentine leaders instinctively seek additional lands to misrule. Since such an appetite is addictive, no wonder some of them are reported to view the current exercise as a dry run --the Falklands today, Anarctica tomorrow.

Argentina's national drama is poignant and bitter--the tragedy of what might have been. During the years before World War II, it was widely thought of as a golden land--rich and destined to be even richer. Few countries have been so bountifully endowed: its climate is temperate; it has an abundance of rich soil, petroleum and other minerals; and it enjoys a favorable ratio of people to land and other natural resources. Its population is largely of Italian and Spanish origin; unlike its neighbors, it has no indigene tensions.

But the Argentinians have squandered their patrimony by chaotic politics and a lack of economic discipline. Ever since the destructive years of Peron, brave but brief attempts at democracy have been persistently aborted by military coups. Afflicted for four decades with a ravening inflation (which has reached as high as 500 percent, and last year ran at the rate of 130 percent), the country has lagged behind most other Latin American countries in its economic growth rate. Foreign exchange reserves have been largely depleted, and, with an external debt of $30 billion, its per-capita- debt level is the fifth highest in the world. With shocking abuses of human rights, lamentable financial and economic troubles and chronic political instability, no wonder a nation once a beckoning Golconda for European immigrants is now experiencing substantial emigration.

So far Secretary of State Alexander Haig has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid choosing sides. (His ill-advised minions even dined with the aggressors on the day of the rape.) But, though one might quarrel with diplomatic method--the theatrical climate created by his Kissinger-style shuttling may well have compelled the contending governments to harden their positions--the objective of the secretary's effort has been commendable; a negotiated solution is clearly better than bloodshed.

Yet all such diplomatic exertions ultimately reach a point of no return, and if, as now appears likely, Haig's mediation efforts fail, we can no longer delay a hard decision. As between Argentina and Great Britain the choice is open and shut. Not only is Argentina unequivocally the aggressor, as the United Nations Security Council has implied, but Britain and the United States are bound together by solemn treaty and--even more important--the closest ties of history and common enterprise; we have fought on the same side of the epic struggles, are staunchly united against our Soviet adversary and share a rich heritage.

Our relations with Argentina on the other hand depend almost wholly on the geographical accident that our nations are located in the same hemisphere--albeit at opposite ends. We have little ideology in common. Argentina did not break relations with the Nazis until 1943, when it saw the advantage of the United Nations membership, and it undercut our wheat embargo at the time of the Afghanistan invasion.

One can understand why those who see American foreign policy primarily in hemispheric terms should be disturbed by the implications of any action that collides with the expressed views of other Latin American countries. But it is clear that the support Argentina enjoys from its neighbors is largely ritualistic and at best lukewarm; in any controversy between an OAS member and a nation outside the group, Latin Americans will be under pressure to close ranks against the outsider. But that should not deter us any more than the fact that most of the OAS members have territorial claims that might be compromised by their condemnation of the use of force; we have an equal and opposite interest in discouraging further such adventures.

It goes without saying that we should scorn any implied threat that our declaration against aggression might turn Argentina toward the Soviet Union; that is the kind of blackmail no self-respecting nation can tolerate.

Equally obnoxious is the innuendo that a forthright stand on principle could jeopardize Argentina's willingness to continue the dirty work of training Somoza's ,emigr,e legions to promote that scrofulous gang's Second Coming in Nicaragua. If, under the Thieves Code that applies in such matters the Argentinians should expect us to wink at their aggression by way of payoff, it is clearly time such a misconception was vigorously corrected.

In terms of our larger strategy the costs we might incur by taking a forthright stand would be merely small change--a routine out-of-pocket expense of leadership. We should never forget the wise adage that "to govern is to choose." No great nation can afford to behave like the wife in one of Abraham Lincoln's anecdotes who, when her husband was attacked by a bear, played the role of impartial bystander, shouting first "Go it husband" and then "Go it bear." That is the kind of neutralism America has rightly rejected for the last four decades. Though the 600,000 sheep on the island may not care under what flag they are tended, clipped and ultimately eaten, the men, women and children who inhabit the Falklands are entitled to the right of self-determination and to protection from illegal invitations by a demonstrably incompetent military junta. It is time to show our true colors.