Pocket the amusement and irony of Thomas Enders' being ousted as the State Department's Latin chief on grounds that he is too soft. Cast a beady eye on the explanation offered by an unidentified White House hatchetman: "You don't handle Central American policies with tea and crumpets on the diplomatic circuit."

Not since Sen. Joseph McCarthy termed Dean Acheson "this pompous diplomat in striped pants with a phony British accent" has the trade been put down in such a colorful and revealing fashion. What the comment reveals, of course, is a know-nothing tendency that could yet deepen American grief, not to speak of Central American grief, in the region.

Sometimes cursed from his left, Enders nonetheless came to be viewed from his right as something of a closet liberal--for recommending a two-track talk-and-fight strategy in El Salvador, for his live-and- let-live line on Nicaragua, for seeking to enlist the likes of Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez as a Central American mediator, in general for keeping the door open to some sort of political solution.

To put a tea-and-crumpets label on his highly conditional readiness to consider negotiations betrays the emptiness of the phrase-maker. If the words mean what they say, a potential way of pulling some American chestnuts out of the Central American fire has been abandoned. Diplomacy is a chancy thing in Central America, especially in El Salvador, but its uses have to be measured against the likely outcome of indefinitely fighting on: not necessarily victory but collapse.

Especially is this so in view of the political balance in the United States. It is a question whether the American public and Congress will sustain even that level of military action requisite to a serious attempt at negotiation. If it became clear that no such attempt was going to be made, then support for any military action at all would almost certainly fade.

In recent weeks, the public debate on Central America has taken on something of a different shape. The closer that critics of administration policy have come to producing the votes to limit the American role, the more pressure they have come under to explain and ensure that they are not giving Marxists undue aid and comfort. So the critics have been stayed or at least slowed for awhile. But whether the administration's reprieve endures depends on what happens on the ground.

Here the fate of the American ambassador in San Salvador is relevant. Deane Hinton is being swept out by the same broom removing Enders. Though he has worked for a more vigorous prosecution of the war by the Salvadoran government, one of the things evidently held against him is that he put public pressure on the Salvadorans to clean up the death squads.

Hinton did this, in any event, until the White House squelched him last December. Up to then, few people not in the grip of the prevailing orthodoxy would have said the administration was pushing the Salvadorans too hard. The squelching of Hinton could only have been taken, as will his replacement now, as a signal of the priority Reagan attaches to improvement on the human rights front. Salvadorans can read this signal, and so can the American Congress.

Occupied elsewhere, Secretary of State George Shultz had deferred to Enders, a strong manager--but too independent, too exposed and, not least, it seems, too tall for the White House. Enders and Hinton were, nevertheless, the principal conduits by which the bureaucracy funneled its best judgment to its political superiors. The politicals are under no obligation to act on this judgment. But it is something else for them to indicate it is ideologically unacceptable.

The man replacing Enders is the eighth assistant secretary in nine years; the man replacing Hinton has been serving in Africa; the man who is supposed to be running negotiations in the region was a senator from Florida.

The practical effect of their elevation is to downgrade Latin savvy at a key level and to leave policy initiative in the hands of White House National Security Adviser William Clark and U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, both presidential confidants and enthusiasts for hardening the line. It seems to me a bad gamble.