By removing United States ambassador to Honduras John Ferch, the Reagan administration is setting the stage for the most crucial phase yet in its six-year effort to reform -- critics say to topple -- Nicaragua's Marxist Sandinista government. State Department officials insist that Ambassador Ferch, a career Foreign Service officer who was posted in Tegucigalpa less than a year ago, has not been fired.
But outside analysts say the change, part of a larger turnover involving senior US diplomatic, military, and intelligence officials at the key Honduran post, reflects growing dissatisfaction among Reagan hard-liners with Ferch's commitment to the US-backed guerrilla war.
As a US intelligence listening post, home base to the largest faction of Nicaraguan resistance forces, or ``contras,'' and staging ground for US military maneuvers, Honduras's role in the Central American conflict is seen as critical by the administration.
Following recent House approval of $100 million in new US aid to the contras, Reagan officials are now looking for a new ambassador to take charge of the expanding rebel war from Tegucigalpa.
``Now they're going to be looking for another field marshal like [former US ambassador John] Negroponte, somebody who can orchestrate the whole thing with the contras and guarantee that Honduras goes along,'' one former State Department official says.
Last week, a State Department spokesman commended Ferch for his role in persuading former Honduran president Roberto Suazo C'ordova to go ahead with national elections scheduled for last year. The decision paved the way for the first transfer of power between elected civilians in Honduras in half a century.
But several recent missteps cost Ferch, said to be highly respected in the diplomatic service, the support of administration conservatives.
The main criticism directed against Ferch is that he did not play an aggressive enough role in winning Honduran support for the contra war.
Fearing possible retaliation by Nicaragua, Honduras continues to deny officially the presence of contra troops on Honduran soil. In addition, Honduras last year blocked deliveries of humanitarian aid voted by Congress to support the resistance forces. The ban was lifted after the US agreed to increase levels of US aid to Honduras.
Analysts say the administration can ill afford such bottlenecks in the future. That means finding someone with the ideological commitment and force of personality to manage the contra war, and Honduras's support for it, more effectively.
``They're going to be looking for someone who can forcefully explain to the Hondurans that Reagan's put his neck on the line politically and that they're not making things any easier for us by restricting the aid from getting to the contras,'' the former State Department official says.