We are not the only country in the world to use "bargaining chips" in our efforts to get our way. But we are surely the only country that announces for all the world to hear that these are bargaining chips -- that our various threats and demands and declarations of intent are often not serious, but rather only there for the purpose of being withdrawn at a later time. I don't mean the government formally announces at 2 in the afternoon that it's only kidding about the MX or about turning up the heat on Nicaragua. The word is conveyed by press leaks and congressional testimony and semiprivate undertakings made to reassure the domestic public and get those with political or moral reservations to go along. But the minute you acknowledge that something is there mainly or even partly for show or purposes of negotiation you diminish its negotiating value. This is also, alas, a fixed cost of the democratic system we enjoy.

Right now the Reagan administration is trying to beat the system. It is trying to get Congress to support its MX program on the ground that this is needed as a "bargaining chip" in the arms talks with the Soviet Union without at the same time indicating to the Soviets that MX deployment is a bargaining chip. It is also, more daringly, trying to make credible threats against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua that will have the desired effect in Managua, while retaining the requisite support in this country. This latter is the hottest game in town. But can it be won? The question is whether the administration can get a political mandate at home to bring the kind of pressure it wants to on the Sandinistas. I doubt it. Even in the age of Reagan, I doubt it.

Back in the days when the inexpressibly vulgar N. S. Khrushchev was banging his shoe on the desk at the United Nations and otherwise venting his rage at the United States, you would hear it said that by his very willingness to violate the norms of diplomacy and be seen as unpredictable and crazy he had a great advantage on us: people got out of his way. The United States, on the other hand, it was lamented, didn't have those moves: we could be reached by reason and counted on to stay within some vaguely defined set of international rules. All this is open to pretty severe question, since it can also be demonstrated that we have done some very crazy, self-destructive things and that the Soviets operate much more coolly and deliberately (and cynically) around the world than we. But the core idea remains valid: this country is no damned good at getting its way by means of threats and games of chicken. The Cuban missile crisis may be our preferred romance, but the Bay of Pigs is the prototype of far more of our recent tests of will.

What I am saying is that the United States is, on its record, a terminally inefficient and unhappy superpower. We don't especially want to engage, we aren't especially comfortable with the application of our power, and we simply will not tolerate the idea of our government's going in and ousting the leadership of another country. Strains of all this will invariably be present in the society and, given the nature of our democracy, will ultimately inhibit any clean, swift tough-guy action -- no matter how worthy its stated goal.

At the moment in Washington you can hear more than the president's much-remarked upon threats against the Sandinistas -- the talk of making them "say uncle" and the rest. You can also hear some very elegantly argued rationales for overthrowing the Nicaraguan government. Some counsel actual American military engagement, more speak of sharply rising pressure on the Sandinistas, always carrying the threat of eventual direct U.S. engagement if the lesser steps don't work. The arguments are made in the name of supporting democracy, keeping Nicaragua from becoming a lethal Soviet base and doing something to avert the consolidation there of a repressive regime that (it is argued) within about two years will have become a permanent state.

Maybe the talk will have the desired effect. Maybe the Sandinistas can be scared into behaving in different ways, or their countrymen can be scared into getting rid of their rule. But it does seem to me this is very high-risk stuff indeed. For the Reagan administration, determined to reverse the recent American wishy-washies and to establish that it means business -- in short to use power, not shrink from it in international affairs -- can only be credible to the extent that it can bring the public along with it. And I think this is pretty dubious.

I know that Nicaragua, a neighbor, is not Lebanon. People would not necessarily feel the deep opposition to our involvement in Central America that they felt concerning the Lebanese enterprise. But Nicaragua isn't Grenada either, and I suspect the attitudes regarding our intervention there are not so simple as they were regarding Grenada. Congress will dither around on the aid for the contra forces fighting the Sandinistas. It will want to inspect every aspect of administration policy. Funds will be circumscribed. Great debates will be held. People will be of at least two minds on whether they want their country to commit itself to unseating another government, be it ever so unsympathetic. The administration will deplore and regret all this noise and inhibition, but it will be unable to do anything to turn it off.

That is the end-of-the-line prospect. It is of course conceivable that the Reagan administration could pressure its way to success on this one, that its grim warnings will have the desired effect in Managua either on its Sandinista antagonists or on the remaining democratic elements there who might themselves go after the regime. And it is also of course possible that some American military action against the regime could be speedy, decisive and popular at home.

But what long odds. As one who once defended much-maligned "rhetoric" in this space, I must say I think this Nicaragua stuff is getting way out ahead of what people will buy or even feel very comfortable with. The allies, the public, the Democrats, the Congress, the press -- Kibitzers, Inc., is there waiting to be propitiated, explained to, brought along. That is the way we do things. How far out ahead of its necessary base is the administration getting? Will it come to regret its threats?