Inside the Carter administration the political contest over the Panama Canal treaties is being described as ability crucial test of the President's ability "to deliver" in any foreign policy negotiation.
"The President cannot afford to be defeated on Panama," said one White House official. A failure, said another, would have enormous effect on his ability to negotiate" on other international issues.
Some administration officials express the belief - in private - that the White House is unwisely over-dramatizing both the test and his consequences. On all sides, however, there is agreement that the panama dispute has developed into a symbol far beyond its strategic significance.
"Panama," one diplomatic planner said solemly, "is going to be an obsession for months."
In less than eight months, the Carter administration has launched more novel, controversial departures in foreign policy than many administrations did in their lifetimes. At the same time, it could not escape the intractable, inherited negotiations like the Panama issue, which has come to fruit*ion at a sensitive, vulnerable stage for the administration.
In response to critism that the administration is floundering in its hyperactivity. President Carter's chief political adviser, Hamilton Jordan drily observes that in 1976, against all outside advice, "We entered all the primaries."
The political strategists in the White House have plunged into the battle over approval of the Panama Canal treaties much as they would into a political campaign. Today's treaty-signing extravaganza before Western hemisphere heads of state ranging from outside dictators to democrats is a crash political production, launched just two weeks ago in the White House.
The objective is to win Senate support for early voting on the two Canal pacts by appealing for "statesmanship."
But this is no primary contest that anyone has seen before. Even the time of the outcome, the Senate vote on the two treaties, is unknown, but it is months away.
Before then, the Carter administration will be involved in some of the most controversial issues on its international agenda. And many of the conservative senators who are the principal opponents of the treaty are also potential opponents on the other issues ahead.
The administration is therefore unusually sensative that opposition forces, antagonized by the Panama dispute, may converge against it as the struggle for Senate approval goes on.
Ahead are these issues:
U.S. Soviet nuclear strategic arms limitation talks (SALT). In the days just ahead, the administration needs to resolve serious internal differences over the American bargaining position before the next round of talks here Sept. 22-23 with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromkyo. Congressional acquiescence also is needed for informal U.S.-Soviet extension of the existing SALT agreement on offensive weapons, which expires Oct. 3.
Arab-Israel peace talks. Beginning with Israel's Moshe Dayan on Sept. 19, a series of foreign ministers will visit Washington for discussions in this stalemate. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance will continue the Arab-Israel talks later in New York. Any American confrontation with Israel to force it into negotiations also assures a collision with Israel's powerful supporters in Congress.
China Vance's recent trip to Peking, U.S. sources said, bought time for shifting U.S. diplomatic recognition from the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan to the Peoples' Republic of China as the only China government. The administration now must devise a method to convince pro-Taiwan members of Congress that it can switch relations without "abandoning Taiwan."
Other negotiations could cause unpredictable repercussions in Congress. One is the latest Angol-American drive to head off expanding black-white warfare in Rhodesia by forcing the white Rhodesian government to surrender power and make way for black majority rule.
THe administration's human rights policy and foreign arms sales are also constant candidates for congressional disputes.
Months ago, Jordon's political early warning system in the White House cryptically labeled "panama" as "the prelude of SALT." This meant the administration should anticipate a battle with a similiar political spectrum on an eventual new American-Soviet nuclear arms treaty.
Administration strategy is centered on convicing dubious congressional leaders that it is possible to marshal enough Senate votes to approve the Canal treaties before Congress goes into its year-end recess. The target date for a recess is Oct. 20, but the session may extend into November.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) has said publicity that the Senate calendar is too jammed to vote on the treaties until after Congress returns January. Byrd reportedly has indicated to the President, however, that if adminstration can demonstrate enough support to win a vote before the recess, he will leave that option open.
If the dispute does not stretch into 1978, senior adminstration planners do not anticipate that it will affect on going U.S. diplomacy.
Other sources, however, believe the adminstation's preoccupation with winning treaty votes will make it extremely wary about diplomatic moves it otherwise might take, in order to avoid controversy with Congress.
Foreign policy legislation now scheduled to be submitted to Congress, informed sources said, already is being scrutinized for possible impact on the canal debate.
Vice president Mondale, who is responsible for long-term planning in the White House, told Washington Post reporter David S. Broder in an interview last week:
"We're not going to put foreign policy on ice, but it's true that Panama will dominate the agenda, at least as far as the Senate is concerned."
Commenting on charges that the adminstration's foreign policy us stretched far beyond its capacity Mondale said:
"You have to concede that at the moment we have a very large platter full of problems. But the test will be whether a year from now we have or have not made more progress than we would have with a more cautious approach."
Mondale said he is optimistic that the Senate will approve the treaties after "a tough fight," and he would not rule ou*t the possibility of a vote before the year is out.
Even if the debate is over before 1973, however, it is bound to affect the climate of relative equilibrim in national attitudes on foreign policy that the Carter administration has enjoyed so far, officials concede.
The administration, for example, has moved part way toward reestablishing diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba and Vietnam with comparatively little outcry from Congress. Opponents of the Canal treaties charge that they yield the waterway to potential Marxist control. Attacks on this line from conservative are likely to hit other administration diplomatic initiative, in the months ahead, putting the Carter adminstration's foreign policy on the defensive for the first time.