THE surly authoritarians who govern Nicaragua have tormented the Carter administration and the Reagan administration but it looks as though the Bush administration wants out of the confrontation. President Bush has cut a deal with Congress which would supply the contras with food and clothing and medical supplies - but not with weapons or ammunition - for another year.
That is when elections are supposed to take part in Nicaragua as part of a Central American peace plan. It remains to be seen whether those elections will take place, whether the Sandinistas will permit the opposition a fair run, and whether the Sandinistas would gracefully turn over power if the opposition were to win.
The deal with Congress is about the best the administration could hope for. The alternative would have been a complete cut-off, even of humanitarian aid to the contras. Congress has no stomach for military aid to the contras and has waffled at times even on humanitarian aid. To get this deal, President Bush had to surrender some authority - an act he may later come to rue. Various congressional committees have been given unusual oversight and even veto power over the extended contra funding.
However, the administration saves a little face. It can claim it exerts a little pressure on the Sandinistas by keeping the contras around - albeit toothless - while we wait to see whether this time the Sandinistas come through on their promises to bring a little democracy to Nicaragua.
Of course the Sandinistas do not like the Bush deal, and immediately rejected it.
But the administration is buying a little time to see what it can do on the diplomatic front. Secretary of State James Baker is willing to trade some lifting of US economic sanctions against Nicaragua in exchange for substantial movement toward democratization. More persuasive would be pressure by the Soviet Union upon Cuba to put pressure upon Nicaragua for some liberalization. That would be a real test of Soviet reform intentions.
It is not a great situation for the new administration, but it must do the best it can with a weak hand.
President Reagan's confrontational approach failed to dislodge the Sandinistas, let alone cause them to offer even a modest cry of ``Uncle.'' Congress, which has hardly distinguished itself for its consistency on Nicaragua, is skittish about new involvement. The American public, although united in its willingness to aid guerrillas against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, is in disarray on support for guerrillas against Soviet and Cuban manipulation in Nicaragua.
Any columnist who writes about Nicaragua knows how fast the reader mail flows in - and how divided it is. Mark Hendrickson, of New Wilmington, Pa., writes to thank me for reminding readers of the ``malicious, tyrannical nature of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.'' After I ``tell the truth about Nicaragua,'' he says, I will be the target of a ``letter-writing campaign by individuals whose fantastic protestations of intrinsic Sandinista benevolence, unmitigated American malevolence and culpability, and related mythology could come straight from the editorial pages of the (communist) Daily Worker.''
That is a harsh characterization of those who support the Sandinistas, but they certainly do write. Helen Chrapla, of Neenah, Wis., writes that she does not believe in this ``nonsense of `my country, right or wrong.''' She is outraged when she hears people referring to the contras as ``freedom fighters.'' She gets ``awfully tired of the old saw about the communists being the only bad guys around. We too long have supported horribly repressive dictators, the oligarchy, the military and our own business interests around the world.''
It is amid such swirling currents that the Bush administration is trying to extricate itself from the Nicaraguan problem.