Do the people of the United States want their government to aid military operations against the government of Nicaragua? Unless Congress thinks they do, it ought to act quickly to strengthen its curbs on such aid.
The currently alleged US support of guerrillas opposing Nicaragua's Sandinista regime flies in the face of international law. It has virtually isolated the US this week in United Nations Security Council debate over the fighting in Nicaragua.
Intervention also violates the spirit of a congressional measure prohibiting Washington support for military activities to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Yet it may not violate the letter of the ban, whose language was reportedly watered down at administration behest. The administration can argue it is complying with the law on grounds that it is not supporting overthrow of Nicaragua's government but only harassment of it to check the flow of arms through Nicaragua to rebels in El Salvador.
Yet on both sides of the congressional aisle questions have been raised. Barry Goldwater, Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said there is evidence the CIA is involved in plans to destabilize the government in Managua. Senator Moynihan, the committee's Democratic vice-chairman, has noted it is hard to draw the line between harassment and a deliberate attempt to destabilize or overthrow a government.
To dispel any ambiguity the language of the restrictions on US action against Nicaragua should be made firm and clear. No US administration should be handed any technical loopholes for acting contrary to international law in the name of the US people.
The point is not to weaken resistance to authoritarianism in Central America, such as the repressive measures instituted by the Sandinistas in contrast with their original democratic avowals. But ''reform of the reformers'' depends on indigenous Nicaraguan efforts. These have already been undertaken, with some notable former supporters of the regime making their opposition known.
The impression of US support for anti-government forces is said to have been deliberately left undispelled by Washington as a means of creating problems for the Nicaraguan leadership. But this impression has permitted the Nicaraguan regime to blame part of its own problems on the US. So far the war appears to be muting opposition and promoting national unity, and the Sandinistas have actually been bolstered.
At the same time, the US aim of reducing Soviet influence in Central America is also undercut by an impression of US involvement. The Sandinistas turn to Moscow for even more aid than before.
Voices in Congress keep lending lip service to negotiation as the solution of Central America's various conflicts. That is the course advocated by many Latin American neighbors and other members of the UN. Congress could lend extra weight to this effort by leaving no doubt of its opposition to US covert or overt support for military operations against the Nicaraguan government.