AN unwise mixture of United States public policy and private efforts exists in the current backing of the contras who are fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista government. One result is a blurring of the implementation of US foreign policy.
The US State Department says that the Reagan administration ''does not discourage'' legal private US contributions to the contras or contributions from other nations. It says this position was adopted after Congress refused to provide further aid for the contras and that it is not intended to circumvent the congressional will.
What brought the issue to the fore was the killing of two Americans in a helicopter crash inside Nicaragua on Sept. 1. The two were aiding the contras.
Washington should think very carefully about its decision not to discourage such efforts by US citizens. At some point such a position can be interpreted as becoming tacit approval.
The situation is extremely delicate now, for different reasons, in El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica, as well as Nicaragua. The United States needs as much influence, wisely used, in the situation as it can get. By not discouraging extra-governmental efforts the US runs the risk of losing such influence.
Several serious questions arising from the helicopter crash require answers. One is from what airfield did the chopper take off on its mission? It is generally assumed the flight originated in neighboring Honduras. If it started from one of the air bases built by the US government, was it proper to permit a nongovernmental effort against the Sandinistas to be launched from bases built with US government funds?
Congressional committees are trying to get to the bottom of another issue: Is the Central Intelligence Agency involved in any way in aiding private groups that help the contras? No evidence of any such assistance has yet been found. A parallel question: Are any other government employees, such as US military advisers in Central America, giving assistance to the private groups?
Congress can be expected to give serious consideration to a proposal of Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D) of Mississippi that would bar members of the US National Guard from participating as individuals in foreign conflicts; it is an idea with merit. One American killed in the Nicaraguan helicopter crash was a guardsman.
It is understandable that the administration is unhappy with Congress's decision to cut off contra funding. Yet it would be better in the long run for it to discourage American groups and individuals from participating in the Nicaraguan conflict rather than run the risk of seeing a decline in its influence on Central American events.