Almost everybody in Washington likes Ed Muskie. So there has been a sympathetic audience for his debut as secretary of state. Too sympathetic in fact.

For Secretary Muskie is off to a rocky start. He has turned his back on his best shot. He has run after events in ways that are likely to flash bad signals to the Russians, the allies and this country.

Washington represents Muskie's richest opportunity. There has been no serious, comprehensive review of foreign policy since the Nixon-Kissinger critique of early 1969. Not surprisingly public opinion in fragments. The various components of the executive branch and Congress are at sixes and sevens on every major policy issue. The country does not know its own mind on Russia, on Iran, on the Persian Gulf, on Israeli-Arab affairs and, perforce, on relations with the allies.

The ideal time for a sorting out of views, to be sure, is not now. Bureaucrats tend to play cagey games at election time. But nothing very good is going to happen anywhere in the world until the United States organizes its views.

Muskie is the right man for that job. He has the political clout and the questioning skills to force out relevant comment -- not only in the State Department but from all other departments and agencies. He has the orderly mind and analytic penetration required for the formulation of sweeping ideas. So during the coming months he has a chance to take the town, as it were, to develop the intellectual framework for a new set of basic foreign policy choices.

Unfortunately Muskie has allowed his friends in Congress and State Department to enlist him in their causes. He has given countenance to the idea that he should be the battering ram for Congress in its running battles with the executive branch. He has leaned on State Department officials who have as a principal motivation the settling of scores with the president's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. As a result, Muskie found himself hurled into a maelstrom of complex policy battles on his trip to Europe last week.

The trip, to be sure, had to be made. There was no graceful way for Muskie to avoid a meeting with the allied foreign ministers in Brussels. Nor could he have ducked an encounter with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko at the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Austrian State Treaty in Vienna. But as the new boy, he could have used both occasions to put a hold on foreign policy developments pending further immersion.

Instead, Muskie went to Europe trailing clouds of policy statements. He indicated that, while still sore at Moscow about the invasion of Afghanistan, the United States aimed to return to normal communications with Russia. He said that he favored an approach to Iran that combined "carrots and sticks." He let it be known he hoped the Europeans would abide by previous pledges they had made to invoke sanctions against Iran. He also expressed concern lest the Europeans go forward with a Middle East "initiative" that might sabotage negotiations the United States is fostering between Egypt and Israel.

Whether these goals are right or wrong, giving them advance public expression conveys an unfortunate message. The Russians are now on notice the United States is prepared to return to more cooperative relations. They are bound to think that with a little patience they will be off the hook on Afghanistan and back to business as usual. Hence the friendly noises made by the Soviet leaders at the Warsaw Pact meeting in Poland and the bogus peace proposal from Afghanistan that Muskie has now been obliged to spurn.

The allies also see a more conciliatory stance toward the Soviet Union. French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing gets a license to engage the Russians in preparation for a European conference on detente and disarmament. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt feels he has the green light to warm up to the East Germans and is now sure to go off to visit Brezhnev in Moscow this summer.

The allies are also bound to see the United States in the role of a petitioner, seeking favors with respect to Iran and the Egyptian-Israeli peace talks. Even if they go along, it will be for now and in the expectation of some American favors in return.

As to this country, Muskie has not been able to stay above the truly debilitating battle of hawk versus dove, tough guy versus softy. Like it or not he has allowed his friends to position him on the soft side as the heir to Cyrus Vance.

Perhaps Secretary Muskie can recoup the ground that has been lost. He is a man of strong will and keen intellect. But it will take all his strength to get off the moving escalator on which he has stepped. If he wants to make his mark, he will have to let other people put out the brush fires burning because of past policies, while he concentrates on organizing here in Washington the policies of the future.