I've figured out what Ronald Reagan wants to do in Nicaragua. It's simple. The old film star wants to run the reel backward to the original Sandinista regime right after the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship. The disenchanted former Sandinistas, who now count themselves among the contras, would be back on the job. The revolutionary government would adhere happily ever after to its promises to the Organization of American States to practice democracy and otherwise behave itself.

When you put it that way, you don't have to talk about "overthrowing" the existing Sandinista government, in the sense of using military force. That's a no-no for two reasons. One is that there are still a lot of people who believe in international law.

The second reason is that almost nobody thinks the contras, even with "covert" U.S. aid combined with economic and diplomatic pressures, could overpower the Nicaraguan armed forces. Gen. Paul F. Gorman Jr., the retiring commander of American military forces in Central America, is a hardheaded fellow. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee the other day that the Reagan approach is the only way to "bring the Sandinistas to a reckoning." But he said it would take "years."

The administration does not convey the impression that it is thinking in terms of "years." So Reagan has to be entertaining some expectation that he can bring about a change in the Nicaraguan government by somehow converting those brutal, totalitarian, case- hardened Marxist Leninists he speaks of into reasonable folk. At this point we should excuse Gen. Gorman from the witness stand and call on Jeane Kirkpatrick. Specifically on Jeane Kirkpatrick writing in Commentary magazine in 1979 -- an article entitled "Dictatorships and Double Standards." When associates passed it along to Reagan, he was so smitten by her assault on the Carter foreign policy that he eventually posted her at the United Nations.

In the course of making the case of a "double standard" in the Carter administration's approach to dictatorships, Kirkpatrick pretty well demolished the underlying precept of the Reagan policy in Nicaragua. Kirkpatrick's main point was that the Carter human-rights policy was not evenhanded: it was blind to the repressions of our totalitarian (communist) enemies, while holding our authoritarian friends (and beneficiaries of our economic and military aid) to too rigid a test. She said she thought Americans should be a little more understanding of how difficult it is to "democratize governments, any time, anywhere, under any circumstances." "Right- wing autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies -- given time, propitious economic, social and political circumstances, talented leaders and a strong indigenous demand for representative government," she said. But, she also said -- and this is where her analysis bears directly on today's Nicaragua as distinct from the post- Somoza Nicaragua she was writing about -- "There is no instance of a revolutionary 'socialist' or communist society being democratized."

At another point she argues that Vietnam "should . . . have taught us the dangers of trying to be the world's midwife to democracy when the birth is scheduled to take place under conditions of guerrilla war." It beats me how you can get around applying that lesson to a Nicaragua "under conditions of a guerrilla war" by a very mixed bag of contras against an entrenched "totalitarian" government -- and a "Soviet surrogate" to boot -- which is what the administration tells us we are up against in Managua.

This is obviously not to welcome the Sandinista government to the neighborhood. Still less is it to suggest that the United States hasn't a role to play in protecting the neighborhood from the Sandinista's external activities. It is only to suggest that private academic Kirkpatrick, in the course of her critique of Carter's Nicaraguan policy in 1979, offered some interesting insights into what's wrong with the Reagan policy for Nicaragua in 1985.