THE United States never exactly asked Nicaragua's neighbors if they would allow use of their territory by US Green Berets to train contra troops. But strong public rebuttals of casual remarks from the Pentagon that the neighbors would cooperate have been coming in just the same. Firmly in the ``no'' camp are Honduras, El Salvador, and Panama. And in recent months President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, which shares its 150-mile northern border with Nicaragua, has criticized use of his country as a contra base.
The Central American thumbs-down reaction to US contra training may be, as many US officials surmise, partly aimed at extracting more aid from the US for risks being taken. That position is understandable. US aid levels in the region are still far below the standard recommended in 1984 by the Kissinger Commission.
But there is more to the refusals than that. As close neighbors of Managua, Washington's Central American allies are on the firing line as no other nations are. They cannot afford to appear to be puppets of the United States. They have constituencies of their own to satisfy. In several countries, opposition to the presence of both the contras and the US has been increasing. In El Salvador, for instance, the number of US military advisers is restricted to a tight 55.
The legal grounds for refusing to make territory available for training are also strong. No nation, particularly in a region with such a tradition of respect for the law, is obliged to tolerate interference in its internal affairs. It is a principle rooted in the Organization of American States charter. It is the basis of the World Court's ruling in June that US aid to the contras violates international law. Nicaragua has now stepped up the legal pressure on Honduras and Costa Rica by charging them with similar violations.
In any case, the Latin refusals spotlight a longstanding tendency in Washington to take US allies in Latin America for granted. The administration and Congress spent more time wrestling over approval of the $100 million contra aid package than they did in thinking through the specifics of where and for what the money would be spent.
Certainly training is an important ingredient. Most new recruits and many of the leaders in the 10,000- to 20,000-man contra force have had no military training. And Congress found the idea of sending trainers far more palatable than sending troops. It is to be hoped that the training will be broad, including specific guidance on avoiding human rights violations and civilian injuries.
Legally, the US could bring contra leaders and troops north for training at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Benning, Ga. Hundreds of Salvadorean soldiers have been trained on US soil. But it is still widely assumed that the roadblocks raised by Nicaragua's neighbors to training in the region will in time be moved aside and that most training will take place there. Much of it will probably be done in Honduras, long the base of most contras outside Nicaragua and the country where the US regularly maintains some 1,000 troops. Next door in Nicaragua, where the armed forces are about three times the size of the contra band, an estimated 8,000 Cuban, Soviet, and other East-bloc personnel are offering help and advice.
A cardinal point in the proposed Contadora treaty calls for the departure of all foreign troops, advisers, and bases from the Central American region. The treaty has been moved to the back burner while war preparations increase. If both sides were to seriously rethink the treaty, and how it could be put in practice, all the current questions about foreign armies and where they can legitimately train others could easily be resolved. War is not the only path to reform.