Bob Strauss was a shrewd and effective Democratic national chairman and special trade negotiator. But the thrust of his argument in his Feb. 23 op-ed piece on international trade policy belies that well-earned reputation.

After making the obligatory nod in the right policy direction by stating that there is "a visceral and inaccurate reaction that unfair trade practices are the whole reason for our miserable trade picture when, in fact, they are only a modest part of our problem," Mr. Strauss uses the remainder of his piece to make the case that such unfair practices are in fact at the heart of current public preoccupation with trade and, therefore, the political community's response to it.

Given his trade policy experience, Mr. Strauss should know better than to peddle this line -- which, one suspects, was suggested to him by someone in his party anxious to build a respectable case for an unrespectable proposition. He, of all people, must know that our trade deficit is far more the result of the irresponsibility of Reagan administration policy, and private/public sector complacency in the face of our waning competitiveness, than of unfair trading practices of our GATT and other partners. In fact, innumerable recent studies have shown our own trade barriers to be comparable to those of most of our partners.

But Mr. Strauss is not alone in pushing this phony position. Rep. Richard Gephardt, as widely reported, has in large part based his presidential campaign on it. Bob Kuttner, in Business Week, recently wrote that Mr. Gephardt is owed public thanks for focusing attention on trade practices. Investment banker Felix Rohatyn has extended the argument one step further by suggesting we ought to consider unilaterally checking foreign investment in the United States. (Given our current deficits, where would we be without it?)

Surely the central problem facing the United States in 1989 will be the mountain of public and private debt accumulated during the borrow-and-spend Reagan years. The next president, Democratic or Republican, will have as his first task the mobilization of public support for the changes in macroeconomic policy and national priorities that will be necessary to reverse course. The special bipartisan commission, to which both Mr. Strauss and Mr. Rohatyn have been appointed, should play a valuable role in preparing public opinion for acceptance of the shared sacrifice that a new president must ask of us next year.

As with most things, U.S trade problems do not lie with foreign devils, but with ourselves. Some of our presidential candidates and congressional leaders know this and are willing to say it out loud. More know it but won't say it. Bob Strauss' article only encourages them to remain silent or to pay lip service to the "unfair competition" line.

TED VAN DYK Washington

The writer is a member of the Council on U.S. International Trade Policy, a private trade group.