The most unsettling example yet of the questionable management now plaguing President Carter's praiseworthy policy on human rights must be laid at the President's own doorstep.

Feeling compelled because of his human-rights crusade to go public on the dangerous case of Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly Scharansky, Carter may inadvertently have hastened the journey of that brave dissident to the Gulag Archipelago.

Certainly, such a terrible fate was farthest from Carter's mind when he sprang to Scharansky's defense last week, declaring that he "was never has any sort of relationship to our knowledge with CIA." Conceivably, that presidential denial that Scharansky has a connection with the Central Intelligence Agency - apparently the first time a President has ever made such a public denial on behalf of a foreign national - could help him, in which case he will be released. That would be a great coup for the President.

More likely, however, is the fear expressed privately by top intelligence and diplomatic operatives that Carter's defense could seal Scharansky's fate.

"I'm afraid for Scharansky," one of the highest officials in the Carter administration privately told us. "If they let him go now, they're admitting Jimmy is right and they were wrong to accuse him of treason. That's not their way."

Several days of careful study at the White House and the State Department preceded Carter's decision to tell his press conference last Monday that "contrary to the allegations" Scharansky was never a CIA agent. The study turned up only one shaky precedent in the somewhat similar case of Soviet spy charges against an American citizen named Frederick C. Barghoorn, a Yale University professor.

He was arrested in mid-November 1963 to embarrass President John F. Kennedy. (Barghoorn was fingered by the Soviet KGB as its vitim from a lengthy list of possibles because he had a wartime background in the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA.) He was quickly released after Kennedy publicly denied he had any CIA connection. The Soviets said they freed him "because of the personal concern expressed by President Kennedy."

Yet, even in that case involing an American citizen, the CIA deeply regretted the President's public intervention. To deny one citizen's involvement with espionage carries the obligation for similar public denials in future cases. One of these is likely to be a bona fide spy, making deniability impossible, thus signaling guilt.

Nevertheless, brushing these considerations aside, the President made his statement (and betrayed his inner doubt with the words "I have been hesitant to make this public announcement").

Unlike Barghoorn, Scharansky is not an American citizen. More important, the mood between Moscow and Washington today is bitter, as the Kremlin writhes in anger over the human-rights campaign; in mid-November 1963 the mood was placid. Today, Carter is attacked by name in Tass; then, Kennedy was repected.

Admittedly, management of the human-rights campaign is anything but simple. For example, Carter resolved two other issues involving Scharansky by deciding to cool it: He refused to see Mrs. Scharansky in the White House (she emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1974), and he rejected a strenous effort by a dozen or more congressional wives to see Rosalyn Carter in the White House to dramatize their anger about the treatment of Scharansky.

Elsewhere, messy management of the human-rights campaign has become almost endemic. A case in point was the statement by State Department official Patricia Derian warning that if the Soviets continue to "flout" the Helsinki human-rights goals, they cannot be trusted to keep future agreements on strategic arms limitation.

That is 180 degrees out of phase with the administration's repeated denial of the old Nixon-Ford-Kissinger foreign policy "linkage," a policy President Carter has dumped. As it has been forced to do so many times in disagreeing with U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, the State Department dissociated itself fromDerian - whose job, ironically, is to "coordinate" the President's human-rights policy.

Guided by such madcap mismanagement, the human-rights policy - by far the most evocative and popular foreign policy initiative and Jimmy Carter - is puzzling its best friends and dismaying the political minority worried that Carter has a bull by the tail.