PRESIDENT CARTER'S DECISION to quit the International Labor Organization makes us wince. For in recent months the organization had been reducing the politicization of which the United States had earlier (and fairly) complained. On his own hook, for instance, the director general had unilaterally assumed the right to screen rawly political resolutions off the ILO agenda. The industrial democracies in Europe and Asia, meanwhile, responding to American urging, had been working as good allies to make the ILO more effective. To us there seemed adequate grounds for the President to rule that, even if the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce wished to withdraw their labor and business delegations from this unusual tripartite organization, the U.S. government delegation should stay another year or two to see the ILO home. There were 45 postwar precedents - governments staying, while labor and business delegations quit - for this course of action.And apparently there was strong support for it from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and from the President's National Security Adviers, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who you would normally expect to prevail on a matter of international policy.

So one is invariably led to speculate that Mr. Carter acted as he did to bolster his overall relationship with the AFL-CIO's George Meany, the more so since the White House explanation for the decision was so unpersuasive. Mr. Meany had voiced some legitimate objections to previous Third World - Communist despoiling of the ILO. But in the end he seemed insensitive both to the improvements made, in part, because of his pressure and to the benefits to American workers that continued participation might bring. The President must deal with Mr. Meany across a broad range of domestic and international issues. The ILO evidently became the sacrificial lamb.

The word at the White House is that the United States remain ready to return to the ILO if it again becomes "true to its proper principles and procedures." Do not hold your breath for the ILO to jump through hoops to win us back. The AFL-CIO will probably try to rejoin yet another international group it quit some years ago, the (non-Communist) International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. The administration, however, must immediately concentrate on limiting the political damage at home. Already on Capitol Hill the know-nothings are whooping it up to slice into other international organizations. This spirit was nicely captured by the suggestion in a recent column by George Will on the opposite page that U.S. withdrawal from the ILO "will be a warnong shot across the bow of the United Nations, another 'ship of fools' from which, eventually, the United States may want to disembark." The ILO, because of its business and labor components, may be uniquely vulnerable to such domestic political pulls. But no prudent government would want to count on that.