WHAT WITH GUERRILLAS raiding the National Palace, crowds cheering them in the streets and businessmen joining in a general strike, it looks as though Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza is on the verge of being forced to resign. Or does it? One can't be sure. The raid on the palace was a humiliation, but governments worthier than his have been humbled by terrorists. To all appearances, President Somoza retains the loyalty of the National Guard. The center may agree that President Somoza has run the country as his personal fief, but the various elements of the center have not shown the unity or will for concerted political action. The Sandinist guerrillas have captured the popular imagination by their military exploits, but their leftist political prescriptions may have put off more people than they have won. In brief, President Somoza, who rules as much by craft as force, quite possibly believes he can hang on.

This is not all. The West Point - educated Somoza can claim an understanding of Washington perhaps unmatched by any other military dictator, supported over the decades, as he has been, by American official and corporate power. What he now can see in Washington is an administration immobilized by its internal contradictions. While the problem in Nicaragua could be identified as "human rights," the administration came on strong. But when the possibility arose that the regime might actually be forced out, the administration slowed. Some officials have favored encouraging the resignation of President Somoza, either on grounds that he is undemocratic or that his continued tenure may lead to his replacement by Castro-tupe guerrillas: "Carter's Cuba." These would-be policy activists have been neutralized, however, by other officials arguing that l) anything smacking of intervention, even to help get rid of a thoroughly discredited leader, should be avoided, and 2) it is unwise to let down a proven friend, especially when the most visible alternatives are anarchy and a dictatorship of the left.

How convenient it would be if President Somoza were to step down and give moderate representative government a chance. It appears, however, that he is shunning that course and driving Nicaragua toward a true national tragedy. If the U.S. government cannot bring itself to speak, even discreetly, this plain truth, others in Washington should. The people with the most weight in Managua may well be those known for their regard for President Somoza. They should be urging him to put the welfare of his nation first, and to provide for a prompt transition to democratic rulle, before Nicaragua is devoured by civil war.