ITS NOT quite the moral equivalent of looting, but it's not wholly different from it either. People -- spokesmen and mainchancers and representatives of this personal or institutional interest and that -- are sifting through the rubble of the Carter administration's crashed rescue mission and making off with the opportunities just lying there. There are political and programmatic opportunities to be seized and psychic opportunities too, deeply rewarding ones of the classic I-told-you-so kind. All this can be very hard to distinguish from straightforward good faith analysis and criticism in the mission's chaotic aftermath.

For example, how much of the complaint that the failure was a consequence of a degraded military capability is relevant and real, and how much just a seized opportunity to score a pet point in a vivid and frightening way? Or, how much of the alies' post-mission anguish is well-founded and genuine, and how much just crocodile tears or a rationale for exploiting the U.S. connection and paying in ever less in return? You can't really be sure in the smoky halflight of the post-catastrophe atmosphere in which the arguments are now occuring. It's next to impossible to make out the shapes moving across that blighted political and diplomatic landscape.

And that is only part of what's unclear, and not even the most important part at that. 1for despite all the armchair-based assaults on and defenses of the mission itself as a military and intelligence operation, it is painfully evident from the abundance of unanswered questions and the elipses of logic in the plan as spelled out, that much about it has not been revealed. We ourselves do not necessarily believe this to be an extenuation of the administration's failure ("If you only knew what they knew," etc.). What is as yet unknown could actually make the mission look far less reasonable to have undertaken -- worse than it does now in conception, not better. The point is only to recognize the atmospheric murk in which we are all of us operating just now, and to acknowledge that at least a certain amount of moral murk seems to go along with it.

In this queer setting, the president's "explanation" of why he now feels free to break out of the White House seems quite appropriate, since it is as unreal and implausible and unpersuasive as just about everything else you hear. But whatever the nature of that statement, the decision itself was the right one. Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd had already made the case for the president's terminating his self-established incarceration, and it rested on solid grounds.In fact the shut-in policy (which we had thought was wise when Mr. Carter first adopted it) had become burdensome and tyrannical in itself, without real purpose and every day something more of an embarrassment and a sham. Political action was being undertaken without inhibition; the awareness that this was so was universal and fed an already deep cynicism in the land; and, because the events dragged on so long, the ban on travel made Mr. Carter himself -- as others pointed out -- yet another hostage of the unspeakable ayatollah in Iran. It came to give the Iranisns as much power over the house-arrested president, in a way, as they had over the Americans in Tehran.

We recognize that although Mr. Carter now ends a prolonged period of self-imposed immobility, he is far from being a free agent. There are no doubt still real limits on how much he can reveal about the nature of the failed mission and about what he thinks should come next. And there are also limits on his freedom to forget. Months ago as the seige was showing no signs of letting up, people began to say that the president should abandon this isolation, that it removed him from normal two-way communication with others and that it made the hostage-release paramount in his policy in a way that could only tempt the Iranians to sport with the hostages further. But he is obviously not now free to cut loose altogether, to seem to be unmindful of their condition or to have dropped his concern summarily and headed for the beanfeeds and crepe-paper streamer gaiety of ordinary campaigning. He would look a charlatan and a fool.

So in this changed, but not wholly changed situation, Jimmy Carter must now come forward and at least simulate ease and normality. It is, polically, about as treacherous a next move as we can imagine. The temptation to playact will be strong, and the self-justification for doing so will always be within easy reach too. That is what the president will have to resist. This is a moment when no one seems to believe very much about what has already happened and what is about to -- or at least the official and/or opposition political versions of these things. Some people now wonder whether Mr. Carter even can continue to run for another term and also ply anything like a successful, recuperated policy at home or abroad. Of this much only, we ourselves are certain: the president's one chance of bringing off such a feat lies in a rigorous and painful and unrelenting demonstration of straight talk and candor, within the constraints of valid security concerns, in the dismal months that lie ahead.