AS THE TORTUOUS negotiations on the administration-Senate-Panama triangle approach their conclusion, it is worth trying to home in on the issue hiding not so subliminally behind the specific provisions and amendments on which debate has turned. It is the perception that the treaties represent one in a long and still-unfolding series of American retreats from a previously dominant position of world power. The perception is strongest in the minds of those who reject the treaties outright and those who impose conditions unacceptable to Panama in approving them. But even some who support the treaties have a sinking feeling that doing the decent thing by Panama may add one more weighty item to a bag already bulging with the American defeat in Vietnam, the loss of strategic supremacy, and various real and imagined shortcomings of Carter administration policy.

It is a fair question whether the perception of American weakness reflects a valid historical insight or something of a passing political mood: whether the country is in a period of retrenchment or renewal.Yes, it's true that, to cite a classic instance, the United States, even if it wanted to, could no longer snap its fingers and force Israel to abandon its war-won Sinai ramparts.But even a casual review of the American condition suggests that the sources of American power have not evaporated. It would be startling if, after the traumas of recent years, Americans were not recalculating their position in the world, and the yardsticks by which their position is calculated, too.

But this is very different, as Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) correctly notes on the opposite page, from thrusting upon a weak ally an arrangement the United States would not dream of trying to impose on a strong adversary. We do not believe any serious nation would conclude that the United States would not dream of trying to impose on a strong adversary. We do not believe any serious nation would conclude that the United States, by bullying Panama, is proving anything of value about how it means to respond to the very real challenges it faces elsewhere in the world. Other countries would more likely draw just the opposite conclusion. It is a sign of weakness, poor judgment, the misuse of power, not of strength and determination, for a country to throw its weight around in such a way. Americans should not he party either to the jingoism or the self-deceit. The latter may be more dangerous than the former.

To see close-up the flaws in a policy of bullying, we invite your attention to a second piece opposite in which Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) explains the purpose of his reservation authorizing the United States to intervene on its own terms in Panama. What bothers him, he states, are such "internal Panamanian activities" as "labor unrest and strikes, the actions of unfriendly government; political riots or upheavals . . ." As an example, he recalls that three years ago a "sickout" disrupted canal operations. Think of it: the United States, unable to enforce the Taft-Hartley Act on its own striking coal miners just a month or so ago, but yet prepared to land troops to put an end to a "sickout" in Panama. Incredible. Mr. DeConcini would treat Panama as though it were an enemy defeated in war. He betrays not the slightest awareness of how - in the 20th century - to treat a friend.

The argument, then, is not between those worried about the American global position and those who overlook it: "conservatives" and "liberals," "realists" and "sentimentalists," or what have you. There is plenty of room for them all aboard a version of the treaties acceptable to Panama. The argument is, or ought to be, between those who with Sen. Moynihan understand the need to fairly accommodate friends in order to deal better with adversaries, and those who with Sen. DeConcini, failing to make this elementary distinction, waste American diplomatic assets and thereby diminish American power. Mr. Moynihan addresses the substance, Mr. DeConcini flails at the shadow. Nothing better defines the character of the debate over the Panama Canal treaties or better demonstrates the rights and wrongs of this tortured argument.