IS IT NOT POSSIBLE for Jimmy Carter to say, just once, that the elections in Zimbabwe Rhodesia were an impressive feat for a place that had never had multiracial elections before; that they were a lot more impressive than the fake polls and military grabs by which power is sorted out in most other African countries; but that hard considerations of national interest compel the United States to limit the political credit it can give to these elections now?

If the president did say something like that - he said something very different yesterday in announcing that the elections were not "free and fair" enough to justify his lifting of sanctions now - he would dissolve the better part opf the resistance that has plagued his Rhodesia policy. For the resistance does not come primarily from disagreement with the substance of the policy. That substance comes down to an effort to coax the two sides into a deal that will 1) produce a representative government, 2) end the civil war raging between them, 3) nip the threat of Cuban-Soviet intervention and 4) keep the United States on the sweet side of black Africa and white Africa alike. Few Americans would carry their respect for Bishop Muzorewa into support for a wider war, and certainly not beating Britain, which is chiefly responsible for Rhodesia, to a sanctions decision.

Many Americans, however, are appalled by the impression of its policy the administration has conveded. They think the administration is ignoring fairness and impartially in order to court those black African states, mostly petty dictatorships or paper democracies, that insist that no Rhodesian government with even one white fingerprint on it deserves the time of day. This distorts the views of a good number of officials. But it is a distortion fed by the administration's own acts and words, and it accounts for the puzzlement and hostility that its policy has stirred even in quarters where a sympathetic reaction might be expected.

In this light, Mr. Carter's statement yesterday was something of a blunder, and an especially untimely one given that the question of lifting sanctions comes up in the Senate as early as next Monday. He was not content to say that the elections did not meet his "free and fair" test and that his decision served the American interest. He did not have the political tact to show himself more than grudgingly open to the substantial progress made toward democratic rule in Salisbury, and eager to preserve and consolidate those gains by helping to end the imminent threat posed to them by the war. He had the clumsiness to virtually dissmiss Prime Minister Muzorewa and the arrogance to say that his decision was in the interest of the people of Zimbabwe Rhodesia - this despite the fact of their participation in the recent poll.

Can Jimmy Carter's policy be saved from Jimmy Carter? Tune in on the Senate Monday.