Here's what President Reagan says: without contra aid, which is to say without the contras, there would be no pressure on the Sandinistas to democratize Nicaragua, and the Sandinistas would eventually establish a communist dictatorship. Since the Sandinistas are Marxist or Leninists or some such thing, they cannot be trusted -- and the recently imposed reforms may just be a feint. In the lexicon of Don Vito Corleone (the Godfather), the contras make the Sandinistas an offer they can't refuse.

The administration's logic seems unassailable. Of course, it's the threat of more aid to the contras that prompted Daniel Ortega to suspend the state of emergency that severely restricted civil liberties. He now promises freedom of everything -- press, speech and assembly. He's willing to talk directly with the contras and free about 3,000 anti-Sandinista prisoners, some of them former members of the detested National Guard. S'wonderful what a little violence can do.

But Reagan's logic is, really, oxymoronic. It contains an internal contradiction that, like lipstick on the collar, gives everything away: if the Sandinistas are communists, if they can't be trusted, then nothing short of toppling them from power will suffice. Like vampires, a stake must be put through their heart, since it is axiomatic that communists never, but never, surrender power voluntarily.

If that's the case, then at what point do you cease funding the contras? The administration's logic permits only one answer: not until the contras win and oust the Sandinistas. And when is that? We don't know. It might not be for a long time or it might be never. Either way, the administration's argument seems to allow only one course of action: the war must be waged until it is won.

Every so often, Reagan's rhetoric provides a certain insight into his thinking. Recently, for instance, the president even argued that control of the Gulf of Mexico was at stake in Nicaragua. We could lose it. Fat chance of that happening. Nicaragua is a country of 4 million people -- a poor country of 4 million poor people. It poses no danger to the United States, and it's not likely that a Soviet Union that's itching to get out of Afghanistan is going to borrow trouble in far-off Central America. What's the president talking about?

He is expressing an anticommunism so fervent that it sanctions all kinds of chicanery -- the illegal mining of a Nicaraguan harbor and the diversion of funds through the sale of arms to Iran, for instance. It prompts the president to adopt the hypocritical language of communist propaganda chiefs. A force of men organized by the CIA, almost totally beholden to it and led initially by men renowned for their thuggery, is called the "freedom fighters." Funds to keep the force in place and ready to do more killing are called "humanitarian."

The ultimate goal, the president says, is the "democratization" of Nicaragua. The last is a wonderful word, an even better concept, and in application one would wish it for all the world. But, really, democracy in Nicaragua is not crucial to the president. He is not known to have lost sleep over the old Somoza regime, and he has not taken to the airwaves to condemn Honduras for its sham democracy or the death squads that have operated there with impunity. Even the administration's concern with human rights in El Salvador is nothing more than a concession to a squeamish American public. We tend to get upset when our nuns are killed.

There's an undeniable utility to killing; the contras have the attention of the Sandinistas. They can make war, but can they win? If, as many think, the answer is "not likely," then what's the purpose of continuing the killing? The longer the war continues, the more convinced the Sandinistas become that Washington's intentions are lethal and the better they can justify their repression.

In Vietnam, the United States finally had to choose between pulling out or using an unacceptable level of force -- an even greater commitment of troops. A similar situation applies in Nicaragua, and once again, there's a moral component to the dilemma: Are we justified in using lethal force against a country that poses no danger to us? How many more Nicaraguans have to die, how many kids have to lose arms or legs, because of Reagan's hyperventilated anticommunism?

Reagan cannot have it both ways. He cannot maintain that the Sandinistas are a cancer on the Central American isthmus and yet persist in a policy that amounts to something less than removal. At issue is not Reagan's sincerity but his reasoning. To some of us, it's illogical. To Nicaraguans, it's homicidal.