This country has developed a ritual for failing in our confrontations with Third World turmoil, and it has been a great success: it worked so well in Iran and Indochina that we seem determined to try it out in Central America and the Caribbean. True, there are some regional variations, but the basic formula remains the same. It involves, first, a couple of competing analyses of the turmoil that are at odds over what the cause of the trouble is, but as one in their unrealistic, oversimplified approach. Then it involves, invariably, a fight to the death to defend each analysis--never mind what happens to the region in turmoil--so that eventually the policy choices people are arguing about have practically nothing to do with the problem they are confronting.

In Central America now, as in Indochina and Iran in an earlier day, the political conflict is viewed by many in the American government as almost solely the malevolent work of a Soviet- connected conspiracy. This view has an unfortunate impact on the conduct of American policy beyond the obvious one of directing our energies at a single aspect of the trouble and our support to characters whose anti-communism may be their only redeeming feature.

It also, and this is the fatal part so far as making useful decisions is concerned, automatically activates a political response that denies all. By "all" I mean all possibility that anything more sinister than a largely justified, democratically inclined local protest movement is at work. This school insists on seeing everyone from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to the mullahs and Mujahedin of Iran to the Khmer Rouge and Viet Cong of another day as your basic Eleanor Roosevelt in national dress, nice but exasperated liberals driven to do, perhaps, some desperate and violent things, but wouldn't you be, too?.

There you have the enduring outlines of the sterile American policy debate. What makes it so attractive, one must assume, to the people who work either side is that it doesn't generally require making any especially difficult --I mean really difficult--choices. We should support and arm the government in its struggle with the forces of international communism, it will be said. Or, we should get out and stay out and let nature take its course, let the forces of reform, which we should actually be supporting, at least prevail and stop thinking there are Russians and Cubans everywhere.

Recognizing a variation on this argument in our current political controversy over administration policy toward El Salvador in particular and Central America and the Caribbean in general, you have to ask yourself whether, after all that tendentious talk about "lessons," the right or the left learned anything at all from our recent misadventures. Our Indochinese and Iranian allies were armed to the teeth by us. Surely, even allowing for eventual American second thoughts and doubts about supporting them forever, it should be apparent that there was a domestic political dimension to their troubles that American policy couldn't deal with. How anyone could fail to believe this also to be the case with the government of El Salvador now or the government of Nicaragua under the fallen Somozas I will never know.

Still the wishful thinking and fantasies of the military-minded, anti-communist right strike me as being probably less harmful to the possibility of doing things well in these turbulent places than do the comparable fantasies of the romantic, reform-minded left. That may be merely because I keep expecting more insight and discrimination from this quarter--and God knows the crashed assumptions of the past 10 years should have produced more of both.

Surely if postwar Indochina and post- Pahlavi Iran tell us anything, it is that the so-called popular alternatives to our less attractive friends among governments of the right are not necessarily any improvement. From which it should be possible to conclude that in countries all over the world where we believe we have an interest or a claim we are obliged to pursue there may be no attractive or even minimally acceptable political ally. Maybe that means we still have overwhelming national reason to support an unacceptable ally. Maybe it means we walk away from it. Maybe it means we make some other more complicated or partial choice. All I'm saying is that we rarely even reach these hardest of questions, because there is so compelling a force in our political chemistry at home to keep us from acknowledging that the choices are as bad or imperfect as they are.

With due respect to the French, for example, and in praise of that particular aspect of their policies most of us like least, they do not seem to have any trouble whatever in seeing the world around them in the harshest, most realistic light and in acting in what they take to be their own interest in the most unsentimental (to be dainty about it) way. But in this country we insist on interpreting evidence that contradicts our assumptions about "our" side in a conflict abroad as only further evidence of the rightness of those assumptions. Thus, the collapse of a beloved ally's armed forces and the defeat of his military struggle to save a doomed political base will be viewed by the friends of right-wing governments in this country as proof we didn't send them enough F16s after all. The collapse will be seen as the indirect handiwork of those who were questioning and impeding the arms flow.

And what will happen then? When the peerless general, prince or civilian strongman gets chased out of his palace, or maybe strung up in it, and the forces of "light" take over and turn out to be vicious, repressive butchers themselves, what is to be said by their erstwhile champions? Not that they turned out to be a rotten lot, but rather that our earlier support of their oppressors made them that way.

We are not there yet in Central America. We are still at the point where one side is saying that the rightist soldiers need more support, and the other is saying that those Cuban- shipped, Russian-made arms don't exist. Even at today's accelerated rates of disaster, that gives us some time before the former are asking who "lost" Central America and the latter are loftily replying that it is arrogant for us to have thought it was ours to "lose."

How nice it would be if we could break the pattern before that happens this time.