The recertification of El Salvador's progress on human rights is nothing but a basic restatement of President Reagan's foreign policy, which is "better dead than red."

Long before the body count was in, the president had decided to give the newly elected government in El Salvador a pat on the back. The reason is not that the Salvadoran military has changed its ways or that the reduced toll would be acceptable in any other country. The reason was given six months ago, when the administration certified that El Salvador was worthy of continued military aid, by Elliott Abrams, the State Department's assistant secretary for human rights, who told a House subcommittee that the situation would be worse if the murderers and torturers we have befriended were to be replaced by communists.

"If the U.S. were . . . to abandon the government of El Salvador, it would have the worst possible results for human rights, due to the imposition of a Cuban-style regime," Abrams said.

The only surprise in the certification was that it carried the signature of the secretary of state rather than the president, who is required by Congress personally to vouch for "progress."

Reagan, of course, dislikes being personally involved in sticky situations. Maybe he also wished to signal that the appointment of George P. Shultz as secretary of state means no change in the "don't-tell-me-about-it" attitude toward human rights abuses in El Salvador.

Actually, the report suggests a fallback from the position of Alexander M. Haig Jr., Shultz's predecessor, who held that international terrorism supersedes human rights as a foreign policy consideration.

Still, Haig, in a cable sent last May to U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton, told him that he must press the Salvadoran government to take five basic "high-priority steps now."

These included consolidating the various police forces, protecting guerrilla prisoners, setting up a human rights clearinghouse that would act in collaboration with civilian and church groups, establishing a human rights program, and instituting more humane treatment of refugees.

In the cable, which was leaked in the press, Haig urged Hinton to inform the Salvadoran government to make these moves "for its own political benefit."PROGRESS

But that government knows, from this administration as well as from the last, that American presidents are leery of cutting off military aid that could lead to a victory of guerrillas, who are so easily labeled "Marxist." The domino theory lives. Nobody in the administration who might argue that El Salvador needs justice more than it needs arms would get a hearing. "Creeping Castroism" is the only recognized problem.

It is easier to say, as Abrams did to The New York Times, that while the situation in El Salvador continues to be bad, it is "moving in the right direction."

The official figures show that the number of "deaths attributable to political violence"--that is, murders of noncombatants--has decreased from 500 to 300 per month. In 1981, 13,353 Salvadorans were beheaded, shot or beaten to death, and 1982 may look better on the charts.

But the numbers, which the U.S. Embassy admits it takes from local newspapers, cover only the slaughter in the cities. They are disputed by the Legal Aid Office of the Diocese of El Salvador, which, for example, put the June death toll at 355, while the embassy reported 189.

One of the hopeful points that the State Department certification makes is that the government is now accusing members of the armed forces of murders. But former ambassador Robert C. White notes that not a single officer or enlisted man has been tried for crimes of this order.

The untried include the five soldiers being held in the case of four U.S. women missionaries who were murdered by security forces in December, 1980. Congress passed a resolution that made evidence of progress in the case mandatory if El Salvador is to get its guns. The suspects have been turned over to a civilian judge who, considering what has happened to mayors, Christian Democrats and others who make life uncomfortable for the government, has been in no hurry to bring the case to court.

The only "proof of progress" was presented by an unidentified State Department official who, in a desperate pre-certification "background" briefing, said that "the judge has pretty thoroughly convinced himself to hold a trial."

On Monday The Washington Post reported about torture at National Police headquarters so ghastly--a worker for a humanitarian organization was put on the equivalent of a medieval rack--that even Hinton felt constrained to report it to the State Department, and protest to the Salvadoran president.

It made no difference. Nothing does when your mind is made up that the only alternatives are red or dead.