FOR AMERICAN POLICY in the Middle East, can there be life after Sadat? The answer has to be yes, but that policy can succeed only if we finally learn not to tie policy wholly to the survival of strong and famous men.

Depending on Sadat and Egypt to furnish us a fragile base for the Reagan administration's anti-Soviet "strategic consensus" was never likely to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan, or even to safeguard our oil supplies.

Certainly, strong and famous men have always made history. But so have policies and principles: History is littered with the wreckage of states and empires that threw those principles away.

Our demands upon Sadat were too great. We expected him to carry the torch of a "peace process" first lit at Camp David. But we were not willing to support him by insisting to our Israeli friends, as well as directly to the Palestinians themselves and to the other Arab states, that we all must follow through and cope with the central Palestinian issue.

Instead, the Reagan administration has so far continued the dawdling, backing and filling of its predecessors. "It is clear," former U.S. ambassador Richard Parker told a Middle East Institute conference in Washington last month, "that there is no indication the Reagan administration is willing to face" the Palestinian issue.

Sadat told me in 1974: "Palestine is the toughest thing, you know, that we have to deal with. It is the most important." Later, he said that he agreed with his friend, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, that Egypt's peace with Israel must have first priority. Palestine could be left for later.

In his speech to Israel's parliament during his peace visit to Jerusalem in 1977, Sadat said that Israel must eventually withdraw from all the land it took in 1967, and that the Palestinians must be given "their rights." He repeated this during the Camp David talks and through the final peace negotiations in 1979.

Sadat's problem, and ours, was that most Palestinians, Saudis, Syrians, Iraqis and other Arabs perceived that Sadat didn't really care about the Palestinians. This vitiated the efforts he did make to get others to care, or to do something about the issue.

What Sadat tried to tell us once more, when he visited Washington for the last time in August, was that we do have to go forward and face it now. There could, he said in effect, be a renewal of the Camp David "spirit" and a further building of the Camp David "process" if we were finally willing to grasp the Palestinian nettle and be skillful and prescient enough to draw the Palestine Liberation Organization into the game in a way which would serve U.S. interests.

Important as it will be, talking to the PLO will not be the only road to peace. What we must do now is look beyond Sadat and reassure the new Egyptian leadership of our continued support, without embracing that leadership so closely that we make it look like a puppet or a client.

From now on into the foreseeable future, this means dealing with Vice President (and apparently soon-to-be president) Hosni Mubarak, the 53-year-old former pilot and air force commander whom Sadat trained to succeed him.

Before Mubarak fell totally under the shadow of Sadat's commanding personality, friends and colleagues, including Mubarak's present foreign affairs adviser (and a key adviser of Sadat), Oussama al-Baz, considered Mubarak to be a good, patriotic Egyptian, but also a good Arab nationalist, deeply concerned about Palestine. For Sadat, Egyptian patriotism and Palestinian nationalism were often incompatible.

Chalk it up to prudence, ideology or a combination of the two: In an early television interview with a U.S. network, Mubarak refused to go along with Sadat's violent condemnations of Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi may or may not have been directly behind Sadat's killing, but he is exulting in it. Despite this, Mubarak told his interviewer flatly that he was not going to say anything at all against Qaddafi.

Above all, Sadat's passing means for the United States an inevitable strengthening of the special U.S.-Saudi relationship. This goes back to the 1920s, when American companies discovered Saudi oil. The relationship survived the test of World War II. Mideast oil was kept out of Hitler's hands by:

President Roosevelt's skillful bargaining with King Ibn Saud over oil,

Mideast bases (coupled with a promise broken by President Truman to consult the Arabs as well as the Jews about Palestine's future)

And Winston Churchill's blunt military action to depose a pro-Axis government in Iraq.

In the postwar period, the main Mideast problem which U.S. policymakers faced, as they do now, was Soviet expansionism. But another problem they first tried to face, then evaded, was the Palestinian problem. Israel was only admitted to the United Nations in 1949 after it agreed at a conference in Lausanne to repatriate and compensate the refugee Arabs of Palestine.

Seeing that the Palestinian issue was too big and too hot to handle, successive U.S. administrations pinned their hope on Mideast strong men. One was Israel's David Ben-Gurion. Another was Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser (encouraged by both his early CIA friends and American businessmen in some early but fruitless secret talks with Israel).

A third strong man was Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, architect of the Baghdad Pact, an earlier anti-Soviet defensive alliance. He was murdered with his hapless Hashemite king by a raging Baghdad mob in 1958. Another was of course the shah of Iran, and also Jordan's King Hussein, one of the Mideast's few true survivors, but who will no doubt have his usual blunt words about Palestine for President Reagan when he visits next month.

To observers in the Mideast, the "strategic consensus" was a hopeless nonstarter because the Reagan administration vainly tried to build it around Israel, to which an autonomous Palestine is anethema; Sadat, who put Egypt first and Palestine second; and a Saudi monarchy to which Palestine is a priority national interest.

Neither the Saudis nor the Gulf Arabs believe seriously that the Soviets, despite their brutal conquest of Afghanistan, are more of a threat than either Israel or the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. Nothing that we can tell them will change this. The Soviets are unlikely to lend support to the Reagan- Haig thesis by open aggression against oil states.

Instead, the Soviets seem content to be patient. They continue to play the game of watching the contending factions in Iran for a chance to promote their own advantage. They rely on the explosive forces of Moslem resurgence now sweeping the entire region to keep it in turmoil. For the moment, these forces threaten the Soviets only in Afghanistan, though they must closely watch their own population of nearly 55 million Moslems too.

What strategy, then, for the United States? First, a negative one of avoiding too close an embrace with the region's remaining strongmen. Close embraces can kill. Such an American embrace probably hastened the shah's downfall in Iran. It certainly helped to kill Nuri al-Said back in 1958. Too close a dependence, and insufficient protection, fatally weakened President Sadat.

Second, avoid a "strategic consensus" which involves imitating what the Soviets are doing in Libya, South Yemen and Ethiopia. Do not stockpile vast American offensive arsenals in Israel, Egypt or anywhere else in the Middle East. Such arsenals are an invitation to trouble because of the fears they create in potential adversaries, as Col. Qaddafi probably now realizes. The AWACS reconnaissance system offered to Saudi Arabia is not the kind of ground arsenal which politically endangers host countries, although Israel considers other parts of the package now before Congress, including enhancement of F15 fighter-bombers, as a danger to itself.hind Sadat's ki Last, and most important: The United States can safeguard its oil and other interests only if it repeatedly and firmly proclaims, and then proves, that U.S. policy stands for justice. This has to include Israel and its security, behind frontiers its neighbors can live with; keeping our commitments to our friends, such as Israel, Egypt and the Saudis.

It must include redress of the great wrong the Palestinian Arabs have suffered since 1947 by giving them a national home of their own, with appropriate, ironbound guarantees to Israel and their other neighbors.

Only then will our oil and our vast financial stake in the Mideast be truly safe. Only then will we not have to regard the torrent of religious turmoil sweeping through the Moslem world as a grave danger to U.S. interests.