As in the U.S. quest for an "honorable peace" in Vietnam, Prime Minister Pieter Botha appears to searching for an "honorable retreat" from the South African-run territory of Namibia (Southwest Africa).

Honorable in this context means an agreement that will arouse as little ire as possible against him among the trublesome right wing of his party. It means maneuvering events so that an election victory for the black guerrilla movement of the Southwest Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) would appear as if it were not Botha's fault.

Botha is also no doubt eager to demonstrate to South African blacks that armed struggle is not necessarily the way to win power. Therefore, a SWAPO victory must not be seen as one attributed to its 14-year-long war against South Africa.

Pretoria's domestic concerns help to clarify its present policy in Namibia, including its recent three-week air and ground incursion into southern Angola to destroy SWAPO bases.

Since Robert Mugabe's election victory in Zimbabwe this year, South African political and military actions in Namibia have been aimed at boistering the image, power and credibility of its preferred party in Namibia, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance.

These actions also have pushed Namibia closer to an independence imposed by Pretoria without U.N. supervision. But South Africa, which has governed the area under a League of Nations mandate since 1920, would still rather have an internationally recognized government in Namibia.

The United Nations, however, declared in 1966 that Namibia was under its responsibility and since then has worked to call a cease-fire to the fighting and to hold general elections.

South Africa's strategy appears aimed at creating a viable election alternative to SWAPO and to put as much distance between itself and the territory as possible.

The alliance is a coalition of whites and African tribal leaders and is held together by their opposition to SWAPO. But it is hampered by its image of being Pretoria's stooge and by its lack of black talent. Dirk Mudge, a white rancher, heads the party.

In the party's first move to improve credibility, the National Assembly, which is dominated by the alliance, passed a tough antidiscrimination law. Over the objections of conservative whites, the law sets fines for violations. o

This week a council of ministers with Cabinet-like duties was established. The ministers are all alliance members drawn from the assembly.

This council, working with the top South African official in Namibia, will take control Aug. 1 of its own Army, a fledgling indigenous force of about 2,000 Namibian-born men trained by the South Africans. Like SWAPO, the alliance now has a military arm.

All the Namibian government needs is time to prove itself, according to South African thinking. In an interview with a local newspaper, the South African administrator of Namibia, Gerrit Viljoen, said he believed that time was on the side of the moderates, now that they had the authority to make changes in the territory. In some months, "ideally a year," they could win popular support," he said.

This is one of the reasons why South Africa is unlikely to agree soon to implement the U.N. plan for a cease-fire and elections in the territory, even though only a few details remain to be completed. One close aide to Viljoen remarked that, if necessary, South Africa could delay the plan's start "ad infinitum."

Another goal of Pretoria's strategy appears to be to bring the Alliance into a more formal, high-profile role in accepting the U.N. plan. Pretoria would also like to get some international recognition of the alliance, to counter the recognition SWAPO has from the U.N. General Assembly as the "sole, legitimate representative" of the Namibian people.

The creation of the council, wedding the alliance more closely to South African decision-making and administration in the territory, is believed in South Africa to foster these goals.

And some observers believe in order to promote the alliance's international status, the South Africans have floated the idea of all-party talks to finalize the U.N. plan. In this plan, South Africa would like to place SWAPO and the alliance in negotiations as equals while Pretoria and neighboring black countries took a secondary role as "front-line" states.

Besides giving the alliance the international status it wants, thus in South African perceptions enhancing its election chances, all-party talks would let Botha off the hook with his own right wing. In the event of a SWAPO victory, he could tell discontented party members that it was not his Cabinet, but Namibia, that accepted the U.N. plan.

South Africa's raids against SWAPO bases in Angola have ensured that for a few months, guerrilla activity will decrease. But the primary reason for the extended attacks is that the war was getting worse. In the first half of the this year, SWAPO has killed 78 civilians and 64 South African soliders, twice the number of troops killed in all of last year, according to South African figures.

The reprieve, however, is likely to be temporary because, like the Zimbabwean guerrilla movements, SWAPO will probably rearm and renew its fighting.