A mature democracy cannot rest easily when managing clandestine operations abroad. This should be obvious. But the United States seems to have to relearn the lesson each time it contrives to manipulate the internal affairs of another nation through Central Intelligence Agency operations.
Now it's Nicaragua, with public revelations that the CIA directed last October a sabotage raid on a Nicaraguan port town's fuel facilities - this on top of last week's Washington ruckus over the mining of Nicaraguan waters.
At one level, it is argued, the issue is in how much detail Congress should be informed about CIA operations. Some in Congress evidently were not paying much attention during certain briefings, or chose not to hear; on occasion, in regard to the Nicaraguan affair, CIA briefers may not have been forthcoming.
Either way, as a policy option, clandestine operations have at best a short-range usefulness. They cannot gain a popular base of support. The public cannot see how something wrong when done openly becomes right when done in secret. The long-run risk is to undermine US credibility in the region, undercut self-confidence in US rectitude, and erode Washington support for the administration's objectives.
Congress anguishes over US policy.''Few in Congress have any sympathy for the leftist tactics in El Salvador, but our tit-for-tat response in Nicaragua has lowered us into the gutter with the violence-prone revolutionaries we so loudly condemn,'' says Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa. ''In the process we have undercut the moral imprimatur upon which US policy in Central America is based. Subversion to halt subversion, terrorism to stop terrorism, is of dubious legal or moral validity.''
President Reagan, speaking this week to a group of Hispanic-Americans, cited the same threat in Central America that he cited in Lebanon - Marxist expansionism. ''Today a faraway totalitarian power is committing enormous resources to change the strategic balance of the world by turning Central America into a string of anti-American, Soviet-styled dictatorships.''
It is, frankly, hard to see where the Soviets are making any great headway in the world. They're certainly not cleaning up in Lebanon, after the US exodus. Progress with China remains slow. South Africa seems to be gaining among its neighbors at the Soviets' expense. The Soviets are having to raise the ante in Afghanistan.
It is hard to see how the administration's disparate activities in Central America come together in a cohesive strategy, whatever one's estimation of the Marxist threat. There has been something of a consensus on military and other aid to El Salvador, which is about to hold its runoff election. The building of bases in Honduras, the staging of joint maneuvers there, remain something of a bafflement: Is the US trying to erect through Honduras an armed barrier against a northward Marxist surge? But even the Honduran exercise has its supporters on Capitol Hill. The CIA in Nicaragua upsets the mix.
If the administration is not prepared to declare war on Nicaragua - and there is no market for this among the US public - it should not try to carry on a war in secret via the CIA, or on the cheap, using surrogates.