The senator was talking about negotiations between the parties to the civil strife. Important, he said, but frankly "we feel there are more important issues." An internal settlement would be fine, but it is "secondary to the national security interests of the United States."

Jesse Helms on South Africa? A Kissinger admirer on Chile? No: Chris Dodd, perhaps the most sophisticated Democratic critic of the president's Central America policy, on Nicaragua. Dodd spoke for the Democratic view that the problem in Nicaragua is external. It is between Washington and Managua. The president insists instead on church-mediated negotiations between the Sandinistas and their domestic opposition i order to open up the political system.

Dodd rejected the idea that American security interests should "take a back seat to the internal problems of Nicaragua." Yes, "the contras are important, Managua is important, El Salvador is important, (but) not as important as the interests of the United States."

It is curious that a leading Democratic liberal should make this case. Democrats don't talk that kind of Realpolitik, certainly not, say, about Chile or South Africa. Why here? Why in Nicaragua should concern about American interests take precedence over the rights of the people?

The only plausible answer is that while there is not the slightest chance of American boys being sent to Johannesburg or Santiago, the same cannot be said of Managua. Democratic aversion to "the internal problems of Nicaragua" derives fundamentally from a fear of America's being drawn into them, Vietnam-style. In the final days before the contra vote, Democrats from Ed Markey to John Glenn stood in line to invoke the memory of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. "They don't want our boys down there," said Tip O'Neill, explaining the House's resounding defeat of the president's original contra aid proposal. "That's what it is all about." The overriding Democratic theme all week was indeed nonintervention.

The lengths to which some Democrats were willing to go in pursuit of nonintervention were extraordinary. Sens. Tom Harkin and John Kerry returned from an 11th-hour trip to Managua clutching a piece of paper signed by President Daniel Ortega which they announced was a "new, bold and innovative approach" (Harkin) and "a wonderful opening" (Kerry). At their arrival home, only the umbrella was missing. When within hours the Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington denied that there was anything new in the Ortega plan, the senators remained serene.

Most Democrats, however, originally backed another plan, not made in Managua, but hatched here by the Democratic leadership as a statesmanlike alternative to the president's. It carried the House, only to be voted down after the president's plan had lost and alternatives were no longer needed. Before it had outlived its usefulness as a cover, Democrats had brandished it for days as a demonstration that they are not mere nay-sayers.

They, too, could formulate foreign policy. They, too, were prepared to spend $14 million to save Central America. The first $10 million was to go in humanitarian aid to refugees. The Democrats insisted, however, that the money be distributed by the U.N. or the Red Cross, not by any agency of the U.S. government. This insistence that American policy is best entrusted to non-Americans gave new meaning to the term foreign policy.

The other $4 million was to go to the Contadora Group to smooth the way to a peace settlement. Now, the idea that what is needed to advance peace in Central America is $4 million thrown at the Contadora negotiators is a parody of liberal analysis. This idea inhabits the same universe as Geraldine Ferraro's campaign charge that the Reagan administration was spending only a fifth as much on arms control as on military bands -- "an incredible statistic," and "out of tune with the American people," she averred. One can think of a dozen reasons to explain why arms control or Contadora negotiations are stalled; only a satirist could dream up inadequate funding.

Next time you hear a Democrat moan or a Republican gloat about how the Democrats don't know who they are or what they believe in anymore, don't believe it. At least in foreign affairs it is not true. Much as some Democrats might prefer to deny it, there is a logic to their foreign policy. The Democrats hold many things dear -- human rights, negotiations, power sharing, reconciliation of warring parties -- but there are limits, the limits of an overriding commitment to nonintervention.

That commitment makes sense of the otherwise incomprehensible turns of Democratic foreign policy -- the invocation of Realpolitik here, the passion for human rights there. And it translates into a curious but coherent set of policies, almost wholly passive and defined by negative acts: disinvestment in South Africa, withdrawal of support from Marcos in the Philippines, denying loans to Chile. These are all acts of omission. When a policy demands commission -- not the withdrawal but the application of means -- out comes the foreign policy compass, the one made in Vietnam, the one whose true north always points home.