MAYBE THE trouble is the term. "Nuclear nonproliferation" is a mind-numbing agent, an eyeglazing property, a bore. Ask anyone. Or, better yet, try to get anyone who is in office and on a busy track, either in this government or those of our dearest friends and allies, to talk about it. Then you will find out: There are -- always have been -- other pressing matters; and besides, to try to hold back the inevitable is stupid; and anyhow, to irrate Country X or Country Y on such a hopeless, long-term issue would be a real time-waster, even an act of irresponsibility when we have so much more urgent, high-stakes business to negotiate with them; and how can we ask other countries to forgo the nuclear option while we and the Russians continue our own nuclear arms buildup -- how arrogant can you get ? -- and, in truth, it's just a little research reactor Country Y is building for Country Z (don't ask about the weapons-grade fuel this reactor will use, it would be rude) . . . and . . . and . . . and . . .

And what? And this: it all adds up to Sunday's raid by the Israelis on the French- and Italian-built Iraq nuclear installation near Baghdad, the very model of the kind of panic-generated first-strike action that the literature warning against the spread of nuclear weapons has always foreseen as the predictable result. The introduction of nuclear weapons in conflict-ridden regions, even the strong suspicion that they are about to be introduced, will function as an incentive to such an action by those with the means to act. We all got off relatively easy this time. Yes, people are killed and danger was courted and prospectively harmful consequences of the raid have not all been felt. But it was a pale version of what can yet come when installations that are further advanced (say after the fuel has been emplaced, not right before) are determined to be mortal threats by some country's neighbor that may or may not itself have some kind of nuclear weapons potential.

The Carter administration can be faulted for an on-again, off-again uneven effort in this field. Its commitment to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons around the world never enjoyed the degree of administration-wide support that could have made it at once smoother and less prone to swings between the overstatement and negligence -- in short, more consistent and effective. And it ended with the dismal decision to resupply the Indian reactor at Tarapur despite India's refusal to renounce use of U.S. exports for future nuclear bombs. But even with all those failings, it began as a right policy that represented a right instinct; it had some notable successes, and the people who have subsequently been deriding it as one of the Carter government's exercises in amateurism and futility need to understand that they are really making a bad joke. The cynical, wordly wise, what-the-hell alternative that has gained such currency in Washington since then represents, in our view, the truly disastrous choice.

If you explore the upper reaches of the Reagan administration on the question of commitment and action designed to stop or even to impede the spread of nuclear weapons to new proprietors, you will find first that there is deep disagreement concerning both the priority of the worry and the possibility of doing much about it. A lot of the objections are familiar and have some plausibility -- but the same is not true of the conclusions drawn from them. For example, it may be true that the anti-proliferators, King Canutelike, wish to stop an inexorable trend of technology that is designed to bring nuclear weapons to ever more governments. But does this mean that we should do anything to discourage or inhibit or slow down this trend, especially as it creates new and terrible dangers in particular regions of the world?

Just about everyone will answer no to that -- but actions, ah, that's something else again. A second Reagan administration idea on this seems to be that "universalism," as it has been called (the attempt to deal with nuclear proliferation on a kind of planet-wide, blanket basis via U.N. treaties and so on, with one general policy approach to all) is a bummer. Why deal with Liechtenstein and Zimbabwe and Cyprus and Ireland as if they were the same place? Why deal with some of them -- hardly potential bomb-builders or buyers -- at all? Wouldn't a wise nuclear nonproliferation policy be discriminating and deal with those specific countries and regions and international relationships that are likely to be the cause or setting of nuclear spread? Sure it would -- now, where is it ?

Here you reach the heart of the matter: the temporizing and sophistry that mark the 1980s approach of the Western industrial countries in general to this subject. The French will tell you that since certain Third World countries are going to to get into these things, it is better -- is it not? -- that they be on hand as suppliers and technicians to keep an eye out for the dangers. How was this valuable in Iraq, where an effort was clearly being made, in their presence and with their assistance, to create an installation that could easily have produced quick bombs? Likewise, where is this discriminating program of which some of the Reagan administration speak? If, as they argue, the point is to act in ways that will strengthen the sense of countries like, say, Pakistan or South Korea, that they do not need to seek an independent deterrent, where is the evidence that a conscious effort in this regard is being made?

Mr. Reagan has, among his own appointees in the State Department and high up at Defense, some of the soundest and most stalwart and intelligent critics there are of the mindless export of nuclear materials and other actions that have created so much danger already. What he needs is a commitment, a policy, a determination to put the prospective spread of nuclear weapons into the national security context where it belongs. This is not some goo-goo, do-good preoccupation, some bath of idealism wallowed in by the naive of the world. Ask the Iraqis, if you don't believe that. Ask the Israelis.