PRESIDENT CARTER was correct, unfortunately, when he described this country's dependence on foreign oil as a "clear and present danger" to its national security. Any prolonged interruption of oil from Saudi Arabia alone would throw the whole industrial world back into a degree of distress that Europe and Japan have not known since the first postwar years and the United States has not known since the 1930s. But once again Mr. Carter follows the rhetoric of urgency with action that is modest and conditional.

In his State of the Union address, for example, Mr. Carter set an oil-import ceiling for 1980 of 8.2 million barrels a day. That's the same as last year's ceiling, and in fact it's considerably higher than the present level of imports. Mr. Carter said hs is prepared to tax imports to hold them down, but only if they should threaten to exceed this rather high ceiling. He has rationing in mind, but only after a serious shortage might develop.

Part of his reluctance to set genuinely significant import limits now is the intricate diplomatic maneuvering under way in Paris among all of the major industrial powers. They agree that, collectively, they can cut oil consumption a lot. But each of them, separately, is exceedingly reluctant to make any commitment that might leave it at any disadvantage in relation to the others. Mr. Carter said he's prepared to set lower limits for the United States if our allies "will join us in a fair and mutual reduction." That would be very much in this country's interest -- and in every other country's interest as well.

Oil consumption is dropping slowly in the United States, as Mr. Carter noted. But the reason has less to do with deliberate American policy than with the ailing ayatollah and his revolution in Iran. Because of the drop in Iran's production, prices here are soaring and people are buying less. Prices will continue to rise, and dependence on foreign oil will doubtless continue to decline -- slowly.

If reliance on foreign sources for the present 47 percent of the country's oil supply is a clear and present danger, what figure represents safety? Going down to 46 percent or 45 percent won't change much. How about 30 percent, which was the proportion as recently as 1972? That would make a real difference. But it would require a reduction of one-sixth in the rate at which Americans burn oil. There is nothing in the administration's plans, or the legislation moving through Congress, that would begin to do that for years to come.

Consider this anomaly: the president and a great many more Americans are prepared to talk openly of war to secure the oil routes out of the Persian Gulf. But neither the president nor many others are ready to impose a tax on gasoline to diminish the imports that, everyone agrees, constitute a clear and present danger to the national security.