Shortly after the rightwing nationalists won the Israeli elections, a Pravda editor said to me, exultantly: "I guess that will teach the Egyptians what it costs to turn against Russia and rely on the United States."

I was struck by the (highly dubious) claim because, with one big exception, the Mideast offers the only foreign-policy subject that has inspired cheers during my visit here. The absence of good news from other quarters says something ironic about the Soviet military build-up, which aroused so much concern in the U.S. Far from bringing foreign-policy successes, the build-up has been accompanied by an unalleviated record of Soviet setbacks abroad.

The most important, by far, resulted from the Indian elections in March. The defeat of Indira Gandhi cost the Soviet Union its most powerful friend in the world. While not yet well-defined, the foreign policy followed by the present Indian regime under Morarji Desai is already hewing less closely to the Moscow line. The most sanguine remark regarding India I have heard here came from a foreign-ministry official who said: "It could be worse."

Africa, supposedly the latest feather in the Russian cap, has turned out just as badly. The Russians are now hung up between a highly unstable regime in Ethiopia, which turned to Moscow for military aid after American support ceased, and the left-wing regime in Somalia, which is backing a secession move against Ethiopia by Eritrea. Things are so bad that one of the charges levelled against Nikolai Podgorny after he was dumped from the Politburo on May 24 is that he lost Somalia because he performed so inadequately on his recent Africa tour.

The same kind of friends-in-conflict problem bugs the Russians in the Mideast. President Hafez Assad of Syria recently won Soviet blessings for the Syrian invastion of Lebanon, which was achieved (literally) over the dead bodies of the Palestinian forces that Moscow also supports. The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, made no concessions to Russia on his recent visit here, even though General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev met with Arafat for the first time in public.

With respect to China, the hopes Russia nursed for a more benign attitude by the successors to Mao Tse-tung have been dashed. Last month, for the first time, Chairman Hua Kuo-feng was attacked in a Pravda article under a pen named reserved for expressions of Politburo views. Not only was the tone of the article warlike, but it made a special point of underlining the dangers in any American collaboration with China against Moscow - not exactly a bright gauge of Russian expectations from Peking.

In Europe, the Soviets continue to wage a tug-of-war with the Communist regimes of the East who want more independence, and the Communist parties of the West who at least pretend to want more. While no results are in, the West European Communists seem to have been blocked from power in Spain and Portugal and maneuvered into poor position in Italy.

The big exception in this inventory of unsuccess is the U.S. The forward stance taken by the Carter administration on arms control and human rights has been turned to relative advantage by Moscow. The Russians boast that Washington now needs an arms-control accord so badly they can wrest concessions from President Carter both on arms-control issues and human rights.

But the exception seems to prove the rule. Russia has gone one-up on the one country that has tended to go ape about Moscow's military build-up. Elsewhere the build-up has gone hand-in-hand with dipolmatic setbacks.

The reason is that decisive political developments - the defeat of Mrs. Gandhi, for instance, or the sorting out of the succession in China - are not closely connected with military matters. The Soviet arms build-up - which all Russians I have met describe as merely a "catch-up" with the U.S. - probably cannot yield any sustained political gains. So President Carter was undoubtedly right in saying at Notre Dame that, when it comes to dealing with Russia, it makes good sense to fight fire not with fire, but with water.