As the wars in Central America rage on relentlessly, the Reagan administration is locked in its own heated battle over United States policy toward the region.
The issue: Should Washington be more concerned with defeating the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador and curbing other leftist pressures, or with meeting the region's basic social and economic backwardness?
Each side in the argument pays lip service to the other, but the differing views are becoming more pronounced. It boils down to ''a classic philosophical struggle,'' a State Department insider says.
So intense is the struggle that angry, behind-the-scenes confrontation within the administration is under way. One side wants dramatic results including military victory - and soon. The other is content to follow a slow, often bumpy road toward basic social and economic reforms.
On the sidelines is a Congress whose wary views on becoming too involved in Central America's traumas have little role in the administration debate.
The struggle essentially puts the White House and the State Department on opposite sides over policy. The White House tends to favor quick, dramatic results; the State Department, a slower process.
''We are sharply divided over the policy itself,'' says a key member of the State Department's Latin America team, ''but what is even more troublesome is that we are locked in a divisive fight over who should make Central American policy and then administer it.''
Ultimately, this whole Washington struggle may be as decisive for the future of the embattled region as the actual warfare in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
Some analysts expected that the recent dismissals of Thomas O. Enders, the State Department's top Latin America policymaker, and Deane R. Hinton, US ambassador to El Salvador, would help to resolve the debate. But apparently their departures have intensified it. Both diplomats had urged the US to go slow on military commitments in Central America. They favored negotiations between the conflicting sides, along with a deepening US commitment to basic economic and social reforms.
There is uneasiness in the State Department over the Enders and Hinton dismissals, for their views were widely supported within the department. Both are career diplomats who are held in high regard by their colleagues.
Mr. Shultz, who earlier had left Central American matters largely to Mr. Enders, has now stepped into the breach. The region has been added to his ''short list of top-priority items,'' a State Department source says.
But Mr. Shultz seems likely to run afoul of William P. Clark, the President's national security adviser, who with US Ambassador to the UN Jeane J. Kirkpatrick is playing an ever-increasing role in calling Central American shots in the White House. Mrs. Kirkpatrick, in the angry assessment of State Department insiders, bypasses State and gives her input on policy directly to the President.
Sometime early this year, insiders say, Mr. Clark began making his weight felt in Central American policymaking. He wants to send more US advisers to the area and orchestrated the commitment of 100 to Honduras to train Salvadoreans. But Clark lost to Shultz over Hinton's replacement. The White House wanted to name Gerald Thomas, a retired admiral who now is ambassador to Guyana. Shultz interceded and got career diplomat Thomas Pickering, ambassador to Nigeria, named to the Salvadorean post.