That mainspring of government action -- the issue of whose reputation gets gored -- fosters a running debate inside the administration on the use of force for political purposes. While the State Department and part of the White House promote counterterrorism in the Middle East, the CIA and other parts of the administration back terrorism in Central America.

Each faction opposes the other, and that fact puts both demonstrably in the wrong. For the broadest international and domestic considerations narrowly limit the use of force by this country unless there is almost universal consensus.

The latest skirmish was initiated by Secretary of State George Shultz. Back in 1983 he and Robert McFarlane -- the president's national security adviser, who had previously served as roving ambassador in the Middle Est -- worked for a peace accord between Israel and Lebanon. They wanted to keep the Marines in Beirut as a token of American support for such an agreement. When bombs began exploding at American installations in the area, they favored retaliation against known terrorist bases in the Syrian-occupied part of Lebanon.

That policy was first sabotaged, and then reversed, by a coalition including Vice President George Bush and the Pentagon. After the American Embassy was hit, Bush and the military argued that retaliation against Syria would alienate moderate Arabs -- notably Saudi Arabia. When the Marines were bombed, Bush and the Pentagon led the way in urging their withdrawal.

Last week Shultz revived the debate in a speech in New York. He said the country "must be willing to use force" against certain terrorist actions. McFarlane approved the speech.

Although Shultz spoke very carefuly and with discrimination, and though he emphasized the need to prpare public opinion, the vice president and the Pentagon both issued public dissents. President Reagan, in his usual way, let the dispute run into the sands of confusion.

Earlier in the week, unauthorized action by the CIA raised the issue of American support for terrorism in Central America. The agency has taken on the task of supporting a guerrilla movement against the left-wing Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. In pursuit of that operation, some CIA officials have deceived both the White House and Congress, most recently in the affair of the manual advocating assassination of Sandinista officials.

Parts of the White House and most of the Pentagon support the CIA. But most of the State Department and some in the White House have been opposed, even outraged. The constant leaking of stories, after all, is not done by the Russians. Once again, Reagan lets the dispute fade away in multiple confusions.

A path through the confusion is traced by two general conditions. One is the international situation. The United States is a superpower, and thus it cannot afford to win some and lose some. When this country loses, the balance of power shifts adversely.

Thus, after Vietnam, a series of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America tilted toward Russia. The slide was reversed only when the United States, in the wake of Afghanistan, acted to stiffen its defenses.

Similarly, after the withdrawal of the Marines, Lebanon entered the camp of Syria -- a country closely connected with Moscow. Only the indigestibility of Lebanon and the might of Israel have prevented further Syrian gains.

For international reasons, accordingly, the United States cannot just go in for a penny. If this country meets any local resistance, it is under pressure to go in for a pound, and then two pounds, and three and four and more and more.

Domestic politics, furthermore, work in the same direction. The American people know that this country has the force to tiumph when necessary. A Grenada suits the national temper just fine. But there is little patience for a long, slow, grinding struggle that ends in a tie. As in Korea, and Vietnam, and Lebanon, the push of opinion is to win or get out.

The convergence of international and domestic logic argues an overwhelming lesson. This country must be extremely careful about token forces for limited political purposes. Force should be brought to bear only where there is a strong chance of quick success. It must be backed by a large, enduring support from public opinion.

But in fact, there is widespread discord about the use of force in Central America or in the Middle East. Indeed, the sharp divisions within the narrow spectrum of the Reagan administration demonstrate fully how far the country is removed from consensus. Copyright (c) 1984, Los Angeles Times Syndicate