As a practical political matter, "constructive engagement" in South Africa is no longer a winning formulation for U.S. policy in South Africa. But before we pronounce it dead, we ought to be clear in our minds what it is we want to bury -- the contents or the label?

If it's the label, fine. "Constructive engagement" has long since joined the list of catchwords for one or another piece of foreign policy that have been bent out of shape by loose usage for this or that political purpose ("containment," "d,etente," "linkage," "massive retaliation"). For lack of an effective administration defense in the face of mounting violence and brutal repression by South Africa's white supremacists, "constructive engagement" has become a code word for a policy designed purely and simply to "dismantle" the system of apartheid by the pusillanimous practice of quiet diplomacy. From this it is no big jump to the conclusion that "constructive engagement" was always a wicked wink at the evils of apartheid out of concern for South Africa as a strategic asset.

Hence the cries for a radical departure from the old Reagan policy to something fundamentally new. The result is a)an overwrought and rancid debate between a needlessly defensive administration and a Democratic opposition overreaching for partisan gain, and b)precisely the wrong signal to be sending to Pretoria.

Forget the label and reexamine the original contents of "constructive engagement." You will find that, as between the recommended new departures and the "old policy," there is not all that much to fight about.

The roots of "constructive engagement" are to be found in an article in the 1980-81 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine by Chester A. Crocker, then the director of African studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University and soon to be assistant secretary of state for African affairs and the prime mover of African policy in the Reagan administration. "Constructive engagement" was actually offered as an antidote to the Nixon administration's conduct of South African policy "in the closet" -- to a "de facto acquiescence in the policies of Pretoria." But Crocker clearly intended "constructive engagement" as a formula for dealing not just with South Africa but with blacks and whites "in the region as a whole." It was aimed at promoting general stability and containing violence. As for South Africa, its government was to be constructively engaged not only on behalf of "evolutionary change toward a non-racial system" at home but in the interests of independence for Namibia, the removal of Cuban troops from Angola, and an effort to eliminate causes of tension and hostility in the whole neighborhood.

If there was anything genuinely innovative about Crocker's thinking, as it was later incorporated into Reagan administration policy, it was not so much in its substantive departure from past U.S. policy as in the tactics and priorities. It was in his attempt to define limits as well as potential -- to ration the influence he thought the United States could reasonably hope to bring to bear.

Ironically, the bitterest opposition in his nomination proceedings came from Sen. Jesse Helms, who saw Crocker as a dangerous "elitist," peddling a brand of "egalitarianism" that would lead to a "surrender" by South African whites, allowing them to "retain their lives, and perhaps their property but not their power or their culture."

Now you can argue that Crocker's concept has been imperfectly applied. Surely the administration has been slow to deal with internal pulling and hauling over how hard to push Pretoria. But that's not an argument for a whole new policy. What is really needed is a more constructive understanding in Congress of the policy we have in place.