THE rhetoric is phrased in extreme, almost cataclysmic terms, but is falling on deaf ears. Why? President Reagan could hardly have stated his request for $14 million for the contras in Nicaragua in stronger terms. Backed by Secretary of State George Shultz, he has identified the rebels in Nicaragua as ``our brothers''; likened them to Lafayette, Sim'on Bol'ivar, Thaddeus Koskiusko, and other past freedom fighters; and asserted that failure of the contras would lead to a ``strategic danger'' to the United States and plunge the people of Nicaragua into ``the endless darkness of a communist tyranny.''
But Congress shows little evidence of recognizing a strategic danger to the United States in Nicaragua or nobility worthy of American support in the faces and actions of the rebel force the CIA has organized and deployed along the frontiers of Nicaragua.
Present indications are that Congress would authorize the funds only under pressure from a widespread popular demand. So far there is no sign of a nationwide popular demand for American aid for the rebels. This is an instance where Mr. Reagan's rhetoric has failed to rouse Congress or public opinion.
The explanation lies in a failure on the part of Congress and public opinion to see in the known facts about Nicaragua either the clear ``moral'' issue the President sees or a danger to American interests sufficient to justify what in international law would be (in fact already is) illegal.
It is illegal under international law to make war and commit acts of war without a declaration of war. Mr. Reagan has not asked Congress to declare war on Nicaragua. He has asked it for ``covert'' funds for a group of rebels collected by the CIA clandestinely (in the beginning) so that they could continue to carry war into Nicaragua.
This is in fact waging war against a government that the US still officially and publicly recognizes as the government of Nicaragua. It is making war without admitting it openly and officially. It also amounts to attempted interference in the internal affairs of another country.
Making war without a declaration of war and interfering in the internal affairs of another country are contrary to the general body of international law and violate scores of commitments made by the US to its neighbors in the Americas and to the rest of the world in the Charter of the United Nations.
It is also unusual for the US to export offensive action. Mr. Reagan and Mr. Shultz are correct that the US has frequently in the past gone to the aid of ``freedom fighters,'' but usually when they were on the defensive against an offensive from outside.
The classic first case in the post-World War II period was the defense of Greece and Turkey under the Truman Doctrine. The US acted in both cases to support a legal government with general public support against an insurgent minority coming from outside.
When the Republicans took office in 1952, their secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, wrote a revision of the Truman Doctrine, under which he practiced support for any noncommunist regime under communist threat, provided that government was in control of most of the country and was supported by a popular majority willing and ready to fight for its freedom.
The contras could not qualify for US support under the Dulles formula. The Sandinistas would have a better case.
Congress remains uncomfortable about making ``covert'' war and about trying to interfere in the internal affairs of another country. Besides, it finds it difficult to see menace in a Central American country of 3.2 million people with a standard of living below $900 per capita, a Navy of 300 men, an Air Force of 12 combat aircraft, and an Army of some 60,000.
Plenty of Soviet and Cuban ``advisers'' are in Nicaragua, but there is no solid evidence of major offensive weapons from them, and no strong evidence of major continuing aid to the rebels in neighboring El Salvador.
Under these circumstances the rhetoric seems out of scale. The chances are that Congress will refuse the funds unless the Nicaraguans invade a neighboring country or can be caught receiving major Soviet weapons. So far the Sandinista government in Nicaragua has failed to oblige by doing either one.