The public-opinion polls declare that the overwhelming majority of the American people support a strategic arms limitation agreement. Our allies, we are told, support the proposed treaty "as they understand t." Why, then, is there a possibility that the Senate might reject the treaty?

The short, but not the only, answer is that there is a deep-rooted belief that our pursuit of peace and world stability -- call it detente or SALT I -- has been a unilateral exercise in self-deception and that a continuation of our present policies will place us on the irreversible curve of decline -- the ultimate consequence of which will be to stand in the shadow of a Soviet Union first-strike capability and capitulate rather than risk the instant liquidation of more than 100 million Americans.

This fear may be unfounded. But it exists and will not be removed by earrest declarations that we are strategically equal or by waving public opinion polls in the Senate's face.

In my judgment, the arms-control treaty will not and should not be considered in splendid isolation, without regard to the current state of world events. In the harsh realities of geopolitical strategy, the perception of power is as important as its possession.

Currently, the United States appears to be a country wracked by indecision, paralyzed by self-doubt and unable to reach a consensus on any of the major domestic or international problems that confront it. We seem to be making policy decisions on a daily basis, back pedaling, accommodating the exigencies of the moment. While we engage in the process of adjusting to shifting world realities, the Soviet Union, whose nature it is to abhor a vacuum in policy or willpower, is aggressively and arrogantly exploiting, if not inciting, turmoil throughout the world. As a result, major political realignments are now either under consideration or under way.

The response to the centrifugal force of events is not to blindly reject a proposed treaty and pound our nuclear chest. However, the debate needs some direct answers to nagging doubts instead of a public-relations campaign and a presidential roadshow filled with glittering and deceptive generalities. President Carter's declaration that the United States and the Soviet Union will have the same number of strategic weapons and, therefore, are equal is, to be charitable, simplistic at best and misleading at worst. The notion that we have taken a major step toward reducing the arms race by securing the destruction of 250 Soviet launchers should be of comfort only to the hopelessly naive.

Initially, the administration will have the burden of despelling the appearance that we have been placed at a present or future disadvantage by a series of unilateral concessions. It will have to be explained why we would agree to a protocol that in practical effect places limits only on the United States; why the Backfire bomber is not included within the treaty limits; and why the Soviets are permitted to maintain their large ballistic missiles while we are precluded from producing any.

But more important, either the administration should clarify the course of our strategic plans for the future before the debate on ratification takes place or the Senate should delay the debate until a clarification and irreversible commitment to a plan is produced. It is not enough, for example, to declare that we need a mobile-missile system (MX) and then delay a decision on the appropriate launching mode, thereby leaving open the possibility that the Soviets could object to a future decision as a violation of SALT. This decision must be made before the ratification process begins, not after.

Once Congress is satisfied that we do have a program that will provide true strategic equivalence, it should then appropriate the money necessary and not tolerate any delays or deferments in the production and deployment of those systems to which we are clearly committed.

This may not remove all of the objections to SALT II, but it will send a strong signal to the American people and to our allies that we no longer intend to listen to the siren song of Soviet good intentions, that we are serious in reversing the course of strategic decline that we have been following and that we are committed to pursuing world peace through a program of strength.