It is growing more difficult this week to avoid the conclusion that President Reagan's gunboat-style armed diplomacy is paying off in three parts of the world - Central America, the Gulf, nd the mid-Mediterranean. We have scarcely heard a peep out of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi since Mr. Reagan's bombers smashed a lot of buildings in the colonel's two main cities on April 15 of last year.
In the Gulf, the story is far from finished, bu the US challenged and defied the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini more than five weeks ago with the first flagging (July 21) and escorting of Kuwaiti tankers.
Since then, the Ayatollah has fulminated lavishly, but up to this writing his physical retaliation has been only with mines, a weapon of unique characteristics. It doesn't hit you. It merely explodes when you hit it. And you cannot prove who planted it after it blows up.
In Central America, President Daniel Ortega Saavedra has signed a promise to reform his Nicaraguan revolution in the direction of restored civil rights and political pluralism.
We are entitled to assume that Mr. Ortega will fulfill his new promises only so far as he is forced to do so by unfavorable conditions in his own political environment. But the fact remains that he has signed an agreement to reform his revolution, which he was never willing to do before he sat down in Guatemala City on Aug. 6-7 with the Presidents of four other Central American countries.
A big qestion arises out of this apparent Ortega retreat. To what extent was he forced to it by Mr. Reagan's tenacious six-year support of the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries whom we call ``contras''?
It was certainly a factor. The contra activities have been a drain on the Nicaraguan economy. But - and here is the most interesting angle to the ole affair - it has not been the only drain on that economy.
In June, the Sandinistas said the Soviet Union was cutting its oil deliveries to Nicaragua by 40 percent.
Since then, Ortega has been going cap in hand to anyone who could give him more oil - and not getting it. He has begged the Soviets to resume their previous level of supplies. He has gone to other Soviet-bloc countries. He has gone to Greece. He has applied to several Latin neighbors, including Mexico and Venezuela.
Undoubtedly he could get more oil if he could pay for it. But he can't pay for it.
His earnings from exports have been cut, partly because he has lost access to US markets, and partly because contra operations have disrupted production of his main export crops - coffee and cotton. Since he can't buy oil, he is dependent on those who might give it to him. In a world awash in oil (the world price slumped about $2 a barrel this past week) the Soviets again said no.
Would that we might know the full answer to that question. Perhaps it is because the Soviets have always been stingy imperial patrons. Currently, they sustain only two clients generously - Cuba and Vietnam. Most of the others are told to make it on their own. The Soviet Union tends to try to take more from clients than it gives.
But could there also be a conscious policy?
Ortega has been asking the Soviets for fighter planes. The Nicaraguans have had an order in for such weapons for years. The Soviets have given them combat helicopters, but no fighters.
Why has Moscow withheld the fighters and why is it now cutting down drastically on the supply of oil which is vital to the Nicaraguan economy?
There are three possible explanations. Take your pick:
The Soviet economy cannot afford more foreign aid.
The Kremlin regards Ortega as a probable loser.
The Kremlin wants to avoid more trouble with the US.
Any or all of the above could explain the plain fact that Moscow is not giving Ortega either all the oil he needs for his economy or the weapons he would like to have to extend his military range. The most intriguing theory is that Mikhail Gorbachev really does want to avoid more strain in his relations with the US.
In Washington over this past week, Mr. Reagan's more hawkish constituents were protesting that he was ``betraying the contras'' by having welcomed, mildly, the Central American peace plan. In Managua, Ortega and his lieutenants must be suspecting that Moscow is selling them out.
Such suspicion would be justified. Ortega is being squeezed between Washington's active pressure and Moscow's static, and in some respects declining, support. That combination has forced him to sign a piece of paper which, if he honors it, would cause him to ease up on the church (which means the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua), restore freedom to La Prensa, the only serious voice of political opposition, and arrange for a free election.
How far will Ortega go down the road of his promises? That will depend on how much pressure he will continue to be under. If the pressure is relaxed, his performance will undoubtedly lag. If the pressure is kept up, he will have to perform at east in the direction of his promises.
The inclination in Washington this week seemed to be in the direction of probably providing continuing support for the contras, at least of the nonmilitary variety, after a cease-fire is declared, if it is.