SECRETARY of Transportation Brock Adams has stirred up a small intra-administration war with a proposal that this department take the lead in the negotiation of international airline treaties. The Department of State, which now has that role, is opposed to the change, as you would expect. So is the chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, who, when asked by the White House for comment, fired back his own proposal for change. The odds are that secretary Adams will not get what he is seeking - nor should he, in our view - but his action is a useful and timely one. It has forced the top levels of the administration of focus on a problem that might otherwise have continued to fester.

Secretary Adams sent his proposal to the president early in March. Because of it, or in spite of it, the two rounds of international negotiations since have produced results far better than those that preceded them. The British and the Dutch have accepted increased competition and lower fares on major routes, and that, given the present state of the international airline system, is precisely what the American government ought to be seeking almost everywhere.

The complaint of the Department of Transportation is that there has been no clear national policy to guide these negotiations in the past and that foreign-Policy, rather than transportation, considerations have been the dominant theme. There is some truth to that, but CAB Chairman Alfred E. Kahn made a telling point in his argument to the White House that "transportation men" tent to approach such negotiations as if their main job were to win new traffic rights for the existing airlines.

It seems likely that some new method of establishing national goals for these negotiations will emerge from this exchange of views. That could come in the form of an international aviation council presided over by the secretary of state, as Mr. Kahn has suggested, or in the designation of the secretary of transportation as the "focal point" for the coordination, as the General Accounting Office has suggested. The precise form is less important than the clarification of whose view will be listened to. In that regard, this situation provides President Carter with an opportunity to fulfill his desire to make the voice of the consumer heard more clearly in government. That is the voice that has been left out of the negotiations too often in the past and one for which a place should be found in whatever new format is devised.