The visit to Washington of Turkey's prime minister has revived the difficult question of how the United States should treat a strategic partner and NATO ally whose standards of democratic practice do not meet the Western norm. Turkey again has an elected government, but a new and fragile one with limited powers; the military still rules directly in one province of three. Turkish human rights policies continue to evoke international concern. In addition, Ankara maintains a military occupation in a neighboring state, Cyprus. It has acted in a way to persuade Greeks, who bear their own responsibility for the friction, that it is building up military power to use in its several serious disputes with them.

The Turks deeply resent it, of course, when Americans condition their aid or even their moral and political approval on matters that Turkey considers either internal or irrelevant to American- Turkish friendship. They react with stubborn displays of nationalism or with grudging explanations of their special political circumstances, not least the fierce campaign of terror and destabilization Turkey suffered in the 1970s apparently at Soviet instigation. They complain that their grievances -- like the assassination of their diplomats by Armenians -- go relatively untended in Western eyes.

To Reagan administration officials, it is pretty much an open-and-shut case. They are unabashedly sympathetic to Turkey, its security requests and, lately, its new Reagan-like economic policy. The Greek government of Andreas Papandreou inadvertently "helps" with pronouncements like the one Mr. Papandreou made while Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal was in Washington; he said Greece sees no danger from its communist neighbors but feels threatened by its ally, Turkey.

T administration does not avert its gaze from human rights, stating in its latest report that Turkish torture cases number "in the hundreds." But unlike many of its critics, Washington sees no value -- sees a negative value -- in injecting human rights directly into Turkish-American consultations on political questions and military aid. The prevailing view is that the prime minister is already doing his best in heavy circumstances.

If he is, it's not good enough. The Turks deserve much respect for their efforts to build a stable and just society and for their contribution to Western security, but sometimes they ask for excessive allowance. That the military and police may not be under full civilian control does not make the tor- ture cases and other alleged violations any more palatable. Turkish officials appear to believe that only naive liberals who do not understand Turkey, or cynical extremists who understand Turkey all too well, bring up issues of human rights and democracy. This is a distortion that separates Turkey from the Western community whose full favor it seeks.