President Carter's unseemly effort to escape political blame for arming NATO with the neutron "bomb" has generated popular resistance to a vital military-modernization program, building "a debate of enormous ignorance" within the alliance that is kept alive by Soviet propaganda.

President Carter may soon announce the start of production of the neutron, a nuclear warhead for short-range tactical missiles that kills with enhanced radiation rather than fire and blast. Nevertheless, the agonizing indecision that has marked the administration's handling of the neutron is a signal example of superpower leadership succumbing to pedestrian politics.

That retreat from reality is costly, considering the overwhelming consensus of military experts and knowledgeable officials in the State and Defense departments: The neutron bomb would vastly reduce the threat to Western Europe of blitzkrieg-style tank attack by the Warsaw Pact on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Admittedly, many Western politicians refuse to accept even the remote possibility of Soviet leaders' ever authorizing an attack. But such wishful thinking flies in the face of the conventional military imbalance in Central Europe; Gen. Alexander Haig, NATO supreme commander, on March 21 described as "grievous" the superiority of Warsaw Pact tank forces alone.

Existing nuclear warheads on the 60-mile Lance missile, if delivered against a communist tank attack, would spread terrible destruction and death to civilians through blast effect and fire. In contrast, the neutron warhead is designed to kill tank crews through radiation, thereby menacing the heart of Soviet military strategy in Central Europe: the massed-tank attack. In popular debate, it has been transmogrified into a weapon that kills people but spares property - distorted but effective political propaganda.

By truly inhibiting the Soviets, the neutron warhead could make nuclear war on the continent less likely. Since it deters the massed-tank attack, Western nuclear response becomes less likely.

Why, then, did President Carter not order an immediate start of production when Congress approved funds for the neutron bomb? The reason: He buckled to pressure.

Fearing a political reaction, the president overruled military and some civilian advisers (including the state Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs). Instead, he quietly invited West Germany and other NATO allies to take the first step and formally ask for the neutron. From that safe perch, the president would then give his approval.

That forced on West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt a decision more painful than the one Carter side stepped. Although Schmidt could easily get his Bundestag to approve the neutron, he would endanger his own power because of opposition within his Social Democratic Party in the absence of a strong U.S. lead.

As the Carter administration continued to procrastinate and seek some easy way out, other socialist governments in Western Europe (particularly the Dutch) wavered under political pressure. "The controversy suddenly started to build and a debate of enormous ignorance broke out all over Europe," one Western European diplomat told us.

Enter Moscow. Sensing disorder in NATO, the Soviet Union unleashed a typical campaign against the "inhuman" neutron bomb. Demonstrations in Western Europe were promoted amid Soviet demands that the United States renounce the weapon.

The passion of the Soviet campaign came not only from the attempt to exploit dissension within NATO, but also the desire to safeguard Soviet strategy. If confronted by neutron warheads, the Kremlin would have to devise a new battle plan for its still-growing force of 20,000 tanks in Central Europe to carry out any attact against the West.

The peculiar military value of the neutron warhead is that it has no obvious offensive role to play, only a defensive role, which for NATO would correct the dangerous imbalance in conventional forces. NATO's only role is defensive; the Warsaw Pact's only role except for policing Moscow's European empire, is offensive. Thus the emotional political debate within NATO against the neutron is irrational.

That debate has become so heated in West Germany that its officials have been forbidden to use the word "neutron." In deciding finally to order production of that defensive weapon, Carter will undoubtedly come under harsh attack. Ironically, it will be harsher than if he had grasped the issue firmly last summer instead of passing the buck to the Europeans.