In a poor Third World country once ruled by Spain, the government orders the closing of two radio stations. It says it fears an insurgency and, indeed, a guerrilla army operates in parts of the country with the aim of toppling the government. Is this Nicaragua? Not on your life. It's the Philippines.

Yup, Cory Aquino has indeed closed two radio stations. And, nope, the government of the United States has not said a word in condemnation. In fact, you can bet the reaction from Washington would be muted even if Aquino imposed martial law -- as she has hinted she might. As a nation we are passionate about democracy -- but in some places more than others.

One of those places is Nicaragua. Democratization is the proclaimed cornerstone of the Reagan administration's policy, and so so popular is the idea -- who can be against democracy? -- that even the Democratic presidential candidates who oppose contra aid talk of democratizing Nicaragua. For their part, the Sandinistas have proved that they are listening. They have permitted the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, to resume publication and allowed the Catholic Church's radio station, Radio Catolica, to go back on the air. There: they're democrats.

But the Sandinistas aren't nor, realistically speaking, can we expect them to be. They are Marxists -- unconventional Marxists, to be sure -- but Marxists nonetheless. They may never run a Cuba-style totalitarian regime, but it's not likely that they will ever institute U.S.-style democracy. Could the United States live with that?

Why not? We not only live with such regimes all over the world, some of them are our buddies. South Korea, the land of house arrest and torture, is our ally. The administration has expressed its distaste for the Pinochet regime in Chile, but we are not making war there. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy but also our absolute friend, while South Africa, no democracy, has only reluctantly been condemned by the administration. Mexico is a one-party state, and China -- communist, totalitarian but anti-Soviet -- has us in such thrall that its repression in Tibet produced not a peep from the administration.

In fact, Reagan's own record proves that for him democracy is, as in Ira Gershwin's lyric about women, "a sometime thing." The president didn't kiss off Ferdinand Marcos until he absolutely had to. And when it came to the old Somoza regime, Reagan in 1979 professed dismay that the State Department was critical of Nicaragua's appalling human rights record when -- look! -- "the revolutionary forces who are fighting against his regime are Marxists. . . ." As much as Reagan cherishes democracy, he cherishes anticommunism even more.

Of course, democracy is to be preferred. But the democratization of Nicaragua is not the issue -- not the real one, anyway -- and we can hardly go around the world picking fights with countries just because they aren't democracies. The issue for the United States ought to be its security concerns, and to a large degree Nicaragua has satisfied them. It no longer runs guns to the leftist Salvadoran guerrillas, and it has not provided the Soviets with the bases we fear. For Reagan, democracy is really beside the point. There would be no U.S.-financed contras if Nicaragua had remained a friendly right-wing dictatorship.

Give Reagan credit. He has enlisted even his opposition in a Quixotic and (for him) disingenuous crusade for democracy -- a smoke screen to obscure his real goals. The Democrats, out to prove they can be as critical of left-wing regimes as they have been of right-wing ones, have echoed Reagan's call for democracy in Nicaragua. They provide Reagan with a pretext to continue a war for a sham goal that he himself must hope he can never reach.

If democratization is to be the test of our Nicaragua policy, it's probably going to fail. If, on the other hand, Nicaragua -- no matter what its government -- becomes a non-threatening neighbor, then we will have achieved something. That bird is virtually in our hand while the other, democratization, is in the bush of Nicaragua. But Reagan is not interested in either bird. It's the bush he really wants.