A DISTRACTING SUB-DEBATE has broken out between the administration and its critics over the connection between SALT and the Atlantic Alliance. The administration claims that the Europeans support SALT for purposes of both defense and detente and that, if SALT fails, American leadership will be generally discredited and, for openers, NATO will shy from agreeing on schedule to deploy the new Pershing and cruise missiles. The critics say that the public European embrace of SALT reflects administration arm-twisting. The kind of leadership the alliance really craves, they go on, requires the defeat of SALT and a major alliance-wide gearing up to meet the Soviet challenge.

It is true that the administration has been pushing the NATO argument with the zeal that a struggling swimmer reserves for the final pull that he hopes will take him to shore. It does not have so many usable arguments that it can ignore those at hand. And the argument is usable: how could American standing in Europe fail to slip if the administration were to default on an effort that three presidents over seven years have made the central feature of American foreign policy? The notion that NATO's confidence in Washington would somehow grow, were the Senate to repudiate the president, is absurd.

Though the NATO argument is a good thing, however, the administration has tried to make too much of it. From saying that NATO supports SALT, it is only a short step to saying that NATO may unravel if SALT fails. But it is a faulty step. NATO has survived other transatlantic frustrations and it is surely strong enough to survive this one, if it comes. The administration should not be locking escape hatches. And now that it is certain that the Senate will not act on SALT before NATO meets next month on the new missiles, the administration's poor earlier judgment in linking the two so closely is plain. The case for the missiles is strong no matter what happens to SALT -- and no matter what happens to the arms control initiative that NATO intends to offer Moscow as it proceeds on the new missiles. Europe surely does care, after all, for its own defense.

If the administration has overreached in the battle for Europe, however, some of the critics have been devious. They have sometimes seemed intent not just on defeating the treaty but on humiliating the president. When Europeans ignore President Carter, he is accused of failing in leadership; when they follow him, as they have in supporting SALT, he is charged with orchestrating their response.

The fact is that Europeans would rather see an American president succeed than fail. The local political balances that permit them to fit their policies to the United States are premised on American leadership. If the United States cannot effectively manage its relationship with the Soviet Union, the Europeans will not entirely lose heart or slip off quietly to make their own deals with Moscow, but there will be further slippage in morale and in American influence and the Atlantic Alliance will be the worse off for it.

To claim more is to betray an unbecoming panic. To grant less is to put one's head in the sand.