The decision to sell the electonic surveillance planes known as AWACS to Saudi Arabia is puzzling and disheartening to many of us who have looked to the Reagan administration for a new approach to the greatest of all dangers facing the United States: the danger that the oil fields of the Persian Gulf might fall under Soviet contol. Instead of developing a new approach, the administration seems to be returning to old illusions and discredited policies of which President Reagan himself was once the strongest critic.

On the basis of various statements by the president and the secretary of state, we thought that the first step in the new Reagan approach would be the stationing of American troops in the region to act as a tripwire deterrent against a direct Soviet move on the oil fields (and also to prevent other hostile forces from cutting off access to the oil).

In the hope that it would help secure the Saudis' agreement -- tacit if not open -- to this, some of us were willing to go along with the administration's earlier decision to sell them extra equipment for their F15 fighter bombers. The small additional threat to Israel posed by the improved F15 seemed (even to the Israelis, judging by the mildness of their protest) a reasonable price to pay for a change in Saudi policy, though it meant bribing the Saudis for the great privilege of allowing us to defend them.

Now, however, the Saudis are demanding a still larger, bribe, involving a greater threat to Israel, and the Reagan administration has decided to pay it. I for one might still have been willing to go along with this decision if it had been accompanied by a reciprocal change in Saudi policy. Yet there is no indication of any such change. The Saudis have responded to the promise of AWACS by reiterating their opposition to the American-sponsored peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. What is even more to the point, they continue to oppose the stationing of American ground forces in the region, in the very idea of which they insolently profess to see "neocolonialist designs."

The rationale for the AWACS decision is hard to understand in terms that are consistent with what some of us have taken to be the objectives of the Reagan administration. The administration says, for example, that the main factor behind the decision is the growing Soviet threat to the region. Yet the Saudis themselves still perversely insist that Israel is a greater threat to them than the Soviet Union. In any case, the only protection against the Soviet threat -- what the United States must and and should be worried about -- is surely the American ground forces whose presence in the region the Saudis keep trying to block. And if AWACS are needed to meet that threat, then surely they ought to remain (like the ones already there and to which no one objects) under American control.

For the main lesson we are supposed to have learned from the fall of the shah is that we cannot rely, a the Nixon Doctrine assumed we could, on surrogates to guard our vital interests in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, it is prescisely because this basic premise of the Nixon Doctrine was wxploded by the fall of the shah that the Reagan strategy called on the United States to take over the responsibility for protecting its own vital interests in the region. Yet the Reagan administration's rationale for the the AWACS seems to suggest a return to the Nixon Doctrine, this time with Saudi Arabia acting as the surrogate in place of the shah's Iran.

If this rationale is puzzling because it relies on the illusions of the Nixon era, yet another justification offered by the administration is disheartening because it is haunted by the ghost of Jimmy Carter. Thus we are told that the Reagan administration has agreed to the AWACS sale because it feels obliged to honor "an implicit commintment" given to the Saudis by the Carter administration. Yet the Carter administration also made an explicit commitment to the Congress of the United States that it would not sell the Saudis the additional equipment for the F15s. Why is a secret hint to a foreign country more binding than a public promise to the American people?

Not only is Carter eerily present in the flesh of his "implicit commitment"; his spirit also haunts the contention that to reverse this commitment would invite a "confrontation" with Saudi Arabia. Now, there is a name in the political lexicon for yielding without reciprocation to the demands of another nation in order to avoid a confrontation: Such behavior is called appeasement. One had come to expect this of Jimmy Carter. Saudi Arabia, after all, was not the only country he appeased. Nor was it the only instance of the failure of that policy. The F15 sale in 1978 did not prevent the price of oil from rising from $12.70 per barrel to its present level of $32 per barrel. At the same time, and for reasons organically related to our craven response to OPEC, American power was falling to so low an estate that the ayatollah could and did lay criminally aggressive hands on the United States without fear of retaliation.

Yet even if appeasing the Saudis were an effective way of keeping the price of oil down, the economic gain would be more than offset by the mockery if would make of the new administration's claim that American power is once again on the rise. And if Amarican power continues to decline, it is the Soviets and not the Saudis to whose demands we will eventually find ourselves bowing in exchange for rations of oil.

That is the direction toward which the AWACS decision points, and some of us are puzzled and discouraged because it is not the direction in which, with high hopes and happy hearts, we had expected the Reagan administration to move.