In a recent PBS documentary about how the United States got bogged down in Lebanon, Ronald Reagan was shown at a press conference making policy the way Henny Youngman makes jokes. Asked whether the Marines would stay in Beirut until Syrian and Israeli troops left, the president hardly paused before saying, "Yes." The State Department, where things are usually done in a more deliberate fashion, was stunned. It nevertheless pronounced the president's words policy, added more words of its own, wrapped the package in the American flag to ward off dissent and pretended, in the manner of Doug Flutie's Hail Mary against Miami, that the whole thing was planned. Almost instantly, we had a whole new policy in Lebanon -- one that proved, ultimately, to be a failure. Syrian and Israeli troops remain. It's the Americans who are gone.

Lebanon has been largely forgotten, and so have its lessons. Now it is Nicaragua policy that is being made by rhetoric. The president lashes the Sandinistas with exaggeration and hyperbole, bloating their regional importance and the brutality of their regime and altering the reason for his hostility. Where once they were a threat for "exporting" revolution, they are now a danger for just existing and we have, like crusaders of old, a moral imperative to topple them and restore a democracy that never existed in the first place.

As usual in any war, truth is the first casualty. The president has called the Sandinista regime "brutal" and "cruel" when by comparison to, say, Pakistan or Chile it's a pussycat. He says Nicaragua is a "communist totalitarian state" when, once again, it is something less than that, although that may be the direction it's heading. And the president has referred to the CIA-funded contras as the "moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers" and "our brothers" even though their commander and some of their leaders are former members of Nicaragua's brutal National Guard.

If words were just words and not either commitments or intentions, neither Reagan's nor Secretary of State George Shultz's words would matter all that much. But Lebanon taught that words have consequence. A modest use of Marines to show the flag and protect Palestinian civilians quickly escalated into an attempt to unify the country and teach the Syrians a lesson. To back down, the president warned, would mean losing face. But reality -- the deaths of 241 Marines -- offered no choice. We had to back down. And we did lose face.

And we will lose face, if not lives, in Nicaragua as well. Already, both Reagan and Shultz have lost credibility with their plunge into hyperbole. What the White House terms an educational effort to pressure Congress into releasing $14 million in contra aid amounts to a patronizing propaganda barrage directed at the American people. Maybe the reason for that is the president's frustration at being forced to violate the Conservative's Creed and countenance yet another communist regime in the Western Hemisphere.

But whatever the reason, the administration's language is stronger than its options. The contras on their own would probably never get the Sandinistas to cry "Uncle," and even with American help, the task would still take years. As for the ultimate threat -- the use of American troops -- neither Congress nor the public would permit it and Reagan himself disavows it. In any event it would be a mistake of Vietnam- like proportions. American troops could gain control in a day, lose it that very night, and have the world conclude that the only difference between the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the United States in Central America is that our propaganda is more clumsy. Founding Fathers, indeed!

In Lebanon, loose presidential language backed us into a corner from which we could not extricate ourselves without losing pride. The same could happen with Nicaragua. Once you call a country cruel and brutal, communist and totalitarian, an exporter of revolution and a regional menace, you're implying you're going to do something about it. And once you do that, that's what you'd better do. The world, like the street corner, knows just two options -- put up or shut up. The choice is clear.