Soon after his inauguration, in a major speech at Notre Dame University, Jimmy Carter emphasized the importance of America's freeing itself of "that inordinate fear of communism," which for so long had dominated U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, the President himself now appears to be preoccupied by that old obsession.

That raises a troubling question: Is Carter, as recent actions seem to suggest, on the way to joining up with the nation's cold warriors, or, in parrying the right-wing jingoists, is he mostly putting on a show for domestic political purposes?

Admittedly, he faces formidable problems in coping with the superpatriots who denounce the proposed Panama Canal treaties as a "giveaway" to an alleged Marxist dictator, and also decry the evolving terms of a new strategic arms limitation agreement as a "seelout" to Moscow.

So, as the time nears for a congressional showdown on these initiatives, it would not be inexplicable if the administration sought to protect itself from soft-on-communism charges by staging a chauvinistic display of its own.

If that is the game, however, it is a risky one to play. in the 1960 presidential race, John F. Kennedy pressed an even harder anticommunist line against Castro than did his rival, Richard Nixon, which ultimately led to Kennedy's worst mistake, the Bay of Pigs disaster. Lyndon Johnson's military intervention against North Vietnam neutralized his right-wing critics, but it also wrecked his own administration.

In recent weeks, Carter has moved in a direction that, if he persists, could take him beyond the point of no return to the restrained, noninterventionist, pro-detente policy on which he ran for the White House.

The current events in Italy have focused attention on Carter's new hard line. When he came to office, Carter was still criticizing previous administrations for intrusions into the internal politics of foreign countries, notably Italy and other NATO powers.

Yet for mer Secretary of State Henry Kissinger never intruded more openly than the Carter administration has in the immediate Italian crisis, with warnings against letting that country's Communist Party share in the government.

The President must know, as everybody else does, that such American pressure in the past has always been self-defeating. ever since 1946, Washington has steadfastly backed, secretly as well as publicly, the ineffectual Christian Democrats, but today they are weaker than ever, while the Communists continue to gain.

After the latest U.S. interventin, the Italian foreign minister (a Christian Democrat) tartly observed that "these things have never been of any help in sorting out our complicated situation." His pique is understandable: What would the U.S. reaction be if a foreign leader tried to tell Americans how to behave politically?

Carter's hard-line advice was not confined to Italy. On his visit to France, the President had a session with the Francois Mitterand, the French Socialist chief, who could emerge as the next French leader if the Socialists and Communists cooperate in the spring elections. Carter let it be known that he warned Miterand against such an alliance. That may be good for U.S. conservative consumption, but it could well boomerang in France.

Last year, Carter defended Andrew Young, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, when he attacked for saying that Cuban forces in Angola were a "stabilizing" influence. Today the President is saying he can't recognize Cuba until it removes its presence from both Angola and Ethiopia.

Carter is now rebuking Moscow for supplying Ethiopia with arms in its conflict with Somalia, while pointedly ignoring that Somalia (our new "friend") is doing the invading, not vice versa. How times have changed since Somalia was a Soviet satellite and Ethiopia was an American client, with its forces equipped and trained by the United States!

One of Carter's strongest pledges was to cut the defense budget by $5 billion or more, which raised hopes for a reduction in our disproportionate NATO contribution. Now, though, the President plans to give the Pentagon an extra $10 billion, chiefly to beef up our forces on the European front.

Another Carter campaign pledge was to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, but none have yet returned, and it will be four or five years at least before they all come back. Meanwhile, despite Korea's efforts to ensure U.S. military aid by bribing congressmen, Carter has just reassured the Seoul government that it can count on the United States to fight at its side in case of attack, although the pollsters report that Americans are overwhelmingly against such action. That may help explain why the latest New York Times-CBS poll shows less than a majority giving the President good marks on his foreign policy.