The routine argument against contra aid is the Law of Holes: if you're in one, stop digging. That argument is mistaken because the metaphor is misleading. We are in a rut, not a hole. We are in the grip of a bad habit, and a vote for continuing contra aid is a small move toward breaking the habit of halfheartedness.
The habit explains Lane Kirkland's reason for opposing contra aid from the start. Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, cut his political teeth writing speeches for Truman's running mate, Alben Barkley, in 1948. He is a Democrat of the old -- the Truman-Kennedy -- school. He has supported interventionist anticommunism from Greece to Korea to Vietnam. His organization helps sustain the Solidarity movement in Poland.
But Kirkland remembers when President Kennedy gave Robert Kennedy the task of ransoming prisoners from the Bay of Pigs. Kirkland coordinated union participation in the shipment to Cuba of tractors and pharmaceuticals, and he still has the taste of ashes from that experience of halfhearted, semicovert operations. The suburbs of Northern Virginia and Paris and many other places are, he says, littered with the human debris of American halfheartedness -- refugees from failed undertakings in Cuba, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and elsewhere. There is a moral imperative to economize violence: if you choose to lose, lose quickly.
America lost in Vietnam because Hanoi understood (as Pham Van Dong told journalist Bernard Fall) that ''Americans do not like long wars.'' Hanoi knew Americans better than American leaders did. They waged a tentative war of unintelligible increments, interrupted by pauses, intended to ''signal'' a desire for negotiations. But the other side wanted victory, not a ''settlement.''
In Nicaragua, Reagan administration tentativeness, revealed in trivializing small aid requests, may be on the verge of producing another protracted failure, regardless of the outcome of the congressional vote on the minipackage of aid. Last year the Soviet Union sent the Sandinistas military aid valued at $450 million. Reagan now requests $3.6 million in ''lethal'' aid to the contras -- which is to be escrowed while we watch the ''peace process'' and argue about what it means. The rest of the request is $32.6 million in ''humanitarian'' aid, which is like medical care to keep a condemned prisoner healthy until the hangman arrives.
For six years, the administration's strong rhetoric has been disproportionate to its timid requests for aid. And even today, the administration is not saying what it really thinks.
The administration rightly says the Sandinistas are not merely Stalinist, meaning totalitarian, but also Leninist, meaning expansionist. The administration knows there is no instance of a communist regime's negotiating passage from totalitarianism to pluralism.
He who says A must say B. Having said that the security of the region depends on removing Leninism from the region, the administration should have said: we request material resources sufficient to enable the contras to go as far toward victory as their blood and passion can carry them.
There is a war on and the object should be to win. The president says, rightly, that America should do for the contras what Lafayette, Pulaski and von Steuben did for the American Revolution. What they did was help the revolutionaries overthrow the regime that ruled the colonies. The military bands at Yorktown played ''The World Turned Upside Down,'' not ''Let's Negotiate Limited Power-Sharing.''
Advocates of contra aid cannot say with certainty that the Sandinista regime can be toppled or satisfactorily altered. But there are two certainties. Critics of contra aid are, of course, correct: a vote for contra aid certainly is a vote for more war. However, this, too, is certain: a vote against aid -- a vote for ending the war by capitulation -- would guarantee the consolidation of communism.
That may not matter much, other than to Nicaraguans -- if the Sandinistas never meant what they said about implementing a ''revolution without borders,'' or if they have changed their minds.
Recent Sandinista gestures toward ''liberalization'' are minor and revocable. The Reagan administration's stated assumption is that continued pressure from the modestly funded contras can cause liberalization to continue. That may be unrealistic, but is hardly more so than the evident assumption by opponents of continuing aid to the contras. Their assumption is that Sandinista gestures toward liberalization and negotiation are unrelated to contra aid and will survive the termination of that aid.
But those who say A must say B. Those who say contra aid is unrelated to recent Sandinista maneuverings must say that the regime's eight-year march toward totalitarianism was an inadvertence that is now suddenly and spontaneously regretted. The question at issue in the vote on contra aid is: Should the security of the region be risked on that assumption?