In the surreal world of ideological warfare, inaccuracy is a virtue esteemed over all others, save irrelevance. So with Taiwan. Conservatives growl that Taiwan is the very flower of democracy, which it is not, and insist that she has been our staunch ally, as if she had a choice. Liberals positively warble about the thought of Coke machines in Peking. Conspicuously forgotten in all the theoretical booming and trilling is that Taiwan is a place, not a symbol -- a country with real people, a government, policies, specific virtues and vices. Considered in the context of Asia -- context is important -- Taiwan is not what Capitol Hill imagines it to be.

I wonder whether Americans understand how bad Asia is. I spent several years as a shoestring free-lancer in the East and lived, as is customary of such disreputables, in a variety of oriental slums. A year of it should be required of journalism students. In a back street of the East one gains a grim perspective on misery, its form and degree and prospects. One learns to distinguish the humanly important from the polemically useful.

In Calcutta, one steps over comatose children lying naked in gutters, flies sucking at drainage from infected eyes. Twenty years from now, other children will probably be in the same gutters: India is not sprinting into the future. Burma is a xenophobic piece of colonial jetsam whose government, mistaking incompetence for socialism, has strangled the economy. The country has reached 1930 and is marching resolutely backwards. Thailand is hopelessly corrupt and inefficient, changing governments as other people change their socks. Cambodia is incredibly primitive. In the stark tropical country-side, I watched barefoot women with sarongs, and maybe leprosy, make fires with piles of sticks. Laos is nothing at all: hopelessly backward, isolated, hagridden by ideology. Indonesia's lepers sit in cardboard hutments, both dissolving in the monsoons.

We have been fooled by our own euphemisms: The "developing countries," by and large, aren't developing. They lack the stability, literacy, organizational ability, work ethic, governmental pragmatism, access to technology, and ability to absorb it.

Life in the back alleys is rough. I lived for eight months in the teeming slums off Truong Min Ky in Saigon, where dog heads floated in pools of green water. There were no schools, little medicine, no security, no hope. Intestinal worms flourished. Sewage stank, garbage stank. By day, lizards copulated on the walls. By night, three-inch cockroaches exploded from under the walls and raced in crazed fandangos, making papery noises.

Horrors abounded: The blind couple in their 80s who tottered by in the afternoons, tied together by a rope and begging. She usually cried; he tried to comfort her, when he could find her.

Nightmares are not exceptions in Asia. They are the routine of life, day after day after day. Things do not get better. Often they get worse. And a little bit of this can leave one impatient with the uncomprehending political chatter of well-fed sophisticates. In Asia, any government that minds its own business and raises its people above the surrounding cesspool is, ipso facto, a good government.

Which brings us, panting, to Taiwan. I lived for a year in Taiwan, mostly in the laboring section off Tung An Jye in downtown Taipei. I traveled from one end of the island to the other, hiked into remote aboriginal areas. My presumption being that all officials are liars until proved otherwise (the Nationalists certainly are), I believed nothing I didn't see. Outside of Singapore, it was the only successful nation I saw in Southeast Asia.

Taiwan is developing (developed, one might almost say). It is not paper development. Every patch of jungle with a colonel and a border has a five-year plan, but Taiwan has the roads, ports, factories, housing, schools. The young are visibly taller and healthier than their elders. People eat. Grass huts give way to whitewashed masonry. Consumer goods reach the people in quantity. Back-alley restaurants and laborers' living rooms sport baroque color televisions of extravagant hideousness. Refrigeration, rock music and stylish clothes are everywhere.

I don't think Americans grasp the importance of a luxury and a little hope. The wealthier the American, the less the grasp. On Capitol Hill, where opulence is almost lascivious, many people dismiss Taiwan's progress as... well, gauche: Merely economic. The implication seems to be that the Third World should live in philosophic poverty, eschewing such corrupting influences as appliances.

I suspect that if Taiwan's critics were to spend a month in, say, Delhi, they would quickly conclude that the Nationalists, while not all that we might want, are all that we can hope for. It follows that President Carter's ploy may be realpolitik, and may be errorpolitik, but moral politics... no.