President Reagan may compromise on some things. He may appoint a moderate conservative to the Supreme Court of the United States. He may buckle to congressional demands for a tax increase. He may even negotiate an arms control agreement with the ``evil empire.'' But when it comes to the Nicaraguan contras, the President draws the line. Though Mr. Reagan has not fully escaped the political fallout of the Iran-contra affair, he plans to ask Congress, in January, to approve a $270 million, 18-month military aid package for the rebels. Officially, at least, the administration will proffer its request regardless of the success or failure of the ongoing Central American peace initiative.
Unofficially, however, the administration does not know what to do. As part of a process initiated in Guatemala City last month by the five Central American presidents, Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas are negotiating indirectly with the contras to end that country's seven-year-old civil war. Even if an agreement is reached, White House officials have contended, the contras must be supported for a time to ensure that the Sandinistas do not go back on their word.
Yet congressional skepticism has swelled about the wisdom of administration policies in Central America. More important, it does not seem to square with the terms of the Guatemala City accord, which links the introduction of Democratic reforms in Nicaragua with a cessation of US support for the contras.
The official White House position does not even persuade all members of the Reagan administration itself, which has been split along lines dividing orthodox conservatives from moderate pragmatists. Moderates succeeded in persuading Mr. Reagan to join with House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas in presenting a peace plan that would, if the Sandinistas met certain conditions, suspend US aid to the contras. That proposal became the catalyst for the Guatemala City accord, signed two days later.
But the Wright-Reagan plan elicited howls from conservatives in and out of the administration, who charged that the President was preparing to abandon the contras. Chastened, White House officials backed away from full support of the Guatemala City agreement. Instead, the new administration policy seemed to be one of waiting for the peace process to collapse.
What has become clear in the interim, however, is that the peace talks are not about to collapse. The Sandinistas are talking with the contras, while the US prepares to participate in regional security talks with the Central American countries, including Nicaragua. In addition, administration officials say the Soviets have told the US that they, too, support the peace process and are eager to see Nicaragua reach an accommodation with its neighbors.
``I'm sure there are some people in the White House who would love to screw things up right now,'' says Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California. Indeed, the administration's dilemma was driven home by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, who swept about Washington last week, offering a cease-fire proposal to the contras and promising reform in Nicaragua.
``If Congress approves the $270 million,'' Mr. Ortega told reporters Friday, ``it will kill the peace process.''
Nevertheless, the President seems determined to wrest approval for continued contra aid from a Congress increasingly disinclined to do so. ``We've had tough fights on this before,'' an administration official says.
Actually, the administration has not shed so much political blood on any other issue. In their efforts to keep the contras alive, some White House officials allegedly went so far as to break the law, thus precipitating a political scandal that has crippled the Reagan presidency in its twilight years.
The White House position has been hardened by the symbolic nature the contra debate has acquired. For six years, Reagan has fought critics in Congress and around the country over his contra policy. Consequently, it has become the most controversial manifestation of the so-called Reagan doctrine, a policy to roll back the perceived boundaries of the Soviet empire by funding insurgent forces battling Marxist-Leninist regimes.
The doctrine has been applied with less controversy to the support of rebels in fighting Soviet-backed regimes in Afghanistan and, with intermittent congressional opposition, in Angola. But in many respects, Nicaragua means the most to conservatives.
When speaking of Nicaragua they invoke Cuba's example, and they say that a Sandinista victory would provide the Soviets with another foothold in this hemisphere. For this reason alone, the war in Nicaragua looms larger than the struggles in Afghanistan and Angola.
After all, says Burton Pines, senior vice-president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, Nicaragua ``is only 10 minutes' flying time from US territory.''