Beyond the Super Bowl and the Iowa caucuses lies the State of the Union address, now circulating in multiple drafts through an increasingly tight little net of advisers of all sorts -- unless things have changed around town at this time of year. Because of Afghanistan the pressure surrounding this particular ritual observance may be heavier than it has been for many years. It may therefore be useful to suggest to both the draftsmen and their audience that the best speech for this season may well not be the noisiest.

The cynical and brutal Soviet invasion of Afghanistan evidently presents a major challenge to peace and security, outranking in both cruelty and menace the lawless holding of hostages in Iran. It is also evident from the first reaction of the American people that there will be initial public support for a strong response.

But it is very much less clear what set of actions will constitute the right strong response, and it is extremely unlikely that the administration can have sharp answers to that question this week. The problem is probably more complex than any we have had in earlier moments of crisis, and almost the only thing that is clear so far is that simplistic solutions will be wrong.

The central difficulty here is that the direct interest of the Untied States, great as it is, is less than that of a number of other states that have their own strong reasons to be hesitant about an American lead. Danger to Middle Eastern oil may be a planner's nightmare for us; it is a threat to their very survival for regimes in the region, and also to the very lifeline of energy for Japan and Western Europe. Where our own direct dependence on Middle Eastern oil is relatively small, that of Japan is effectively total.

Yet the very fact that truly vital interests are at stake will make both suppliers and consumers hesitate to follow any loud and imperious American lead. These attitudes are not immutable, but they will not be reversed by one wave of an American wand. The same general principle applies to South Asia, where we cannot possibly help Pakistan, over the long run, if we do not respect, and even honor, the interests and feelings of India.

So this is not the time for a repetition of the familiar error of announcing our readiness to make policy for someone else's part of the world -- we do not need a "Year of the Middle East," and any new "doctrine" will be more likely of acceptance, both at home and abroad. If it does not carry any one American's name. Press reports already make it clear that in developing connections and relations that offer more encouragement than alarm in the region, we shall do better when we respect the sensitivities of those we deal with. That probably suggests more private actions than public words, at least for now.

Yet it would be equally unprofitable to speak as if what has been done so far constitutes a response adequate to the challenge. A partial economic boycott will neither undo the aggression nor, of itself, deter a repetition. To stay away from the Olympics will be a more serious matter -- it will have much meaning to the decent masses of the U.S.S.R., and it may also give us a bond of honest sentiment with outraged Moslems -- but it will not deal with the Soviet threat.

The response to that threat must be shaped, in the first instance, by the contries of the region. If the essential Soviet offense in Afghanistan is its violation of national self-determination, the quintessential precondition of a proper response is that it respect the authority, and the right to judge for themselves, of the countries on the spot. Divided and fragile so many of these societies may be, we cannot substitute our will for theirs -- although certainly there are things we can do to reassure them.

What we have to do first, in any case, is tend to our own strength, not so much on station in the area, at least not this week, as in our levels of defense investment. In recent months, and even recent days, there has been foolish debate over which administration or party has been most neglectful of our defense posture. If we now ask ourselves who hs neglected the kinds of strength most relevant to the regional danger in the Middle East, we shall surely find that the right answer is a comprehensive one -- encompasing both parties, both the executive and the Congress, and both civilians and uniformed leaders in more than one administraton.

With so much blame to be shared so widely, it may be better for us all to look forward, not back. Here indeed the State of the Union message can help -- at it can also help to remind us that at the level of nuclear danger, arms control remains an interest deeply shared between great adversaries.

The message might also help us set bounds to our internal debating. It is easy to be misunderstood here: we will get no good result if honest differences are blanketed by flag-waving. But neither is it likely that we shall find the strength and staying power that are now required by assuming that the particular Americans with whom we most disagree are the heart of the problem.

That may be good enough for commentators who prefer familiar targets -- soft or hard -- but it will not do for the rest of us, and it is not true. The problem is out there, in a distant and divided part of the world, presented by a harsh and deliberate Soviet decision. It is a very hard problem, and we shall certainly have differences on the ways of dealing with it. But we do not need to rejoice in them.

In such a situation, we can look to a presidential speech for right beginnings, but not final answers. And if the president should say less than some draftsmen or listeners might like, that will be much better than if he says more than the United States alone can deliver. The test of this speech will not be in the applause count of the evening, but in the way it reads some months from now.