ALMOST EVERYONE seems to agree that the administration has handled the reflagging issue badly. But that leaves the question of whether the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers should proceed. We think it should, but there is a necessary condition. The administration should be made to demonstrate it understands what it is doing, militarily and politically.

Politically, that means being able to convey a clear purpose. The administration has cited free navigation -- but ships pass steadily, despite the shooting in the Persian Gulf for the past three years, and Washington countenances Iraq's continuing attacks on Iranian shipping. It has cited the free flow of oil -- though oil already flows freely. It has cited the modest new Soviet naval presence in the Gulf -- a consideration that set it up for the Kremlin's booby-trap proposal that all non-Gulf states remove their warships. That leaves, among serious considerations, the purpose of keeping Iran, which occupies Iraqi territory and refuses to negotiate a fair peace and threatens all moderate Arab regimes, from winning the war.

Reflagging is said to mark a tilt to Iraq. It happens to differ only in degree from steps already taken by the Soviets, the British and others to protect shipping of special interest to them. Free general navigation has not been "on" in the Gulf since Iran shut down Iraq's ports early in the war. Iraq responded by attacks on Iranian shipping in order to seal off Iran from the sea in the same way. Iran counterattacked by hitting ships bound to and from Iraq's friends. This brought in non-Gulf protectors. Reflagging arises now as Washington seeks with Moscow to open negotiations at the United Nations to end the war. It can serve that diplomatic initiative. That is the essential rationale for reflagging, the one that awaits full American endorsement.

There are military risks -- risks at least on the order of those already being faced, without much fuss, by the British and the Russians. Given the special circumstances, the risks may be greater. But they might be reduced if the American government conveyed as convincingly as possible that it would take seriously an attack on ships flying the American flag. Presumably that was why the Navy, detecting Iran's work on making its new Silkworm missiles operational last weekend, launched warning planes from a carrier; for whatever reason, work stopped.

American arms should threaten no one in the Gulf. They should be available only for defense, reasonably defined, but they should be available. Within a context of care and firmness, it seems to us, the United States could reflag Kuwaiti tankers and promote a negotiation to help end a war that is only incidentally and in trivial measure a war at sea but that is a terrible war.