THE UNITED STATES became in 1976 the first country to write into law an obligation upon itself to issue annual judgments on the internal affairs of other states. This was done in an act requiring human-rights reports on the over 100 nations that receive one or another form of American aid. The idea was to systematize the use of aid as a lever for rights. Just what was the mixture of idealism and arrogance in this approach remains arguable. No matter, the law represented a politically irresistible conviction that American foreign policy had strayed too far from American values. Jimmy Carter drew from this current, added to it and, partly because of it, became president. He is, therefore, poorly placed to draw attention to the limitations and pitfalls of an inflexible human-rights policy, though they are becoming increasingly apparent.

The latest set of human-rights report cards underlines the point. They show that countries regarded as important for strategic, economic or political reasons, such as Iran, South Korea, the Philippines and various black African states, are to be mildly criticized but not officially penalized for shortfalls in human rights. But a little unimportant country like Nicaragua is to be both criticized and penalized; Nicaragua, we note, has made major strides forward in rights in the last year, chiefly to appease the United States. For its pains it is not only faced, as a logical consequence of the loosening up, with growing internal unrest but is also now subjected to fresh humiliation at the hands of the United States. There is a double standard, or a triple or quadruple standard, and that is unacceptable.

Increasingly, abroad as well as at home, President Carter must cope with questions about the effectiveness of his rights policy on the one hand and its intrusiveness on the other. You may say that that is his problem, or that no policy attacked from both flanks can be all bad. But he may be tempting the worst of both worlds, and in the meantime he is losing public confidence. There is the further fact that others, catching up the banner at the point when he would put it down, are attempting to apply a rigid rights test to American participation in the international development banks and now, in a particularly inept and damaging move, in the International Monetary Fund. In these international institutions, the United States plainly does not have the right to dictate the rules the way it does in its programs of direct bilateral aid. In the name of one set of human rights, another set -- having to do with economic expectations --

Mr. Carter finds it hard to say there can be too much of a good thing. But as leader of the parade he is the one who has to indicate an appropriate line of march. It's not enough that he protests, quietly, the damaging superpure amendments that rights advocates, in their unholy alliance with foes of development aid, keep trying to fasten to development bills. He should educate the public, perhaps first himself, in the limitations as well as the virtues of an up-front rights policy. He should make more room for the idea that in this field private groups and public opinion traditionally have a special role, and that discretion can be more effective than a battering ram. He must find the parts of the job that government alone can do well, and the private initiatives that are most effective. That's the meaning of leadership in human rights.