THE BATTLE OVER the Paul Warnke nomination is a blessing in disguise. To judge by the top-heavy vote for his confirmation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, President Carter is virtually certain to get the man of his choice as director of the Arms Control and Disarment Agency and chief of the SALT negotiating team. But thanks to the full public debate, inside and outside the Senate, Mr. Carter is also getting a broad and informed mandate for conducting the strategic arms negotiations with Moscow, which he has marked down as an administration priority. The hearings before Foreign Relations provided the first forum for this educational exercise. But the real credit must go to Armed Services, whose hearings (continuing today) have allowed Mr. Warnke to meet some of his severest critics and to demonstrate - if not to all of them, then to a great many other observers - that prudent arms control measures can enhance national security just as prudent arms-building measures can.

The first line of attack upon Mr. Warnke, and in effect upon the whole concept of arms control, has been that he favors "unilateral disarmament" or "unilateral abandonment" of American weapons programs. The charge is a canard. What Mr. Warnke has favored - in slack periods when formal negotiations are at a standstill - are selective and carefully monitored probing efforts to see whether a brief pause in a particular American weapons program would help break the impasse by eliciting a matching Soviet pause; if not, the deal is off. This is to "unilateral disarmament" as writing a cancellable check is to opening the vault. In fact, as Mr. Warnke made clear in his response to Sen. Jackson, those programs he has "opposed" he opposed on grounds of poor cost-effectiveness and/or military inefficiency. Arms control, like arms building, requires judgement. The matter is as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Mr. Jackson, not alone, further suggested in so many words that the nominee had trimmed his past views to win confirmation. The question permitted Mr. Warnke to point out that proposals made in one context, say, when Moscow has no MIRVs, may not suit another context, say, when Moscow does have MIRVs. In such a situation, consistency of detail could be deadly, as Mr. Jackson surely knows. To a similar charge of inconsistency from Sen. Bartlett, Mr. Warnke was able to point out that the positions he was accused of failing to reconcile (on the Vladivostok accord) were 1) not inconsistent and 2) shared by Sen. Jackson.

A third line of attack was that the Kremlin's awareness of Mr. Warnke's acknowledged and well publicized "dovish" views could undermine his effectiveness as a SALT negotiator. He might, for instance, be called upon to argue for certain American weapons programs that, as a private citizen, he had argued against. The question is fair. It seemed to us that Mr. Warnke answered it squarely. He said that he would not be embarrassed by any previous personal positions he had taken, that he would be representing the position of the American government, and that the Russians would know from his performance at the table whether he was a serious negotiator.

Mr. Warnke's lucid and dignified performance as a witness has to be regarded as a personal tour de force, and as a thoroughgoing vindication of the President's judgment in nominating him. Beyond that, he has performed an estimable service in explaining the special and inadequately understood purpose of arms control, namely, to provide an alternative and complement to the production and deployment of more arms in enhancing national security. We hope that the Senate will confirm him with a vote reflecting the nation's urgent need for a safer world.