Spain and Portugal refused to permit refueling of Cairo-bound U.S. power under President Carter but one that supports his plea to Congress for new strategic airlift capacity.

The unpublicized veto from Madrid and Lisbon prevented the Air Force from refueling its giant C5 and C141 strategic airlift carriers from C135 tankers based on the convenient Iberian pennisula. Instead, they were refueled from bases 1,000 miles to the north in England. Such is the bitter fruit of declining world power.

This sorry episode shows the rapidly escalating need for a new long-range airlift to bridge the huge distances between the United States and the oil-rich Middle East. Declining U.S. power means constantly shrinking landing rights on the territory of traditional U.S. allies. Moving men and weapons to future trouble spots, therefore, puts the focus on long-range airlift more than ever before.

Spain, an applicant for NATO membership, and Portugal, long a NATO member, both have intimate ties to the Arab world. Yet, in supplying Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the United States refueled its air transports in the Portuguese Azores.

Today's Cario-bound U.S. airlift is not nearly so obnoxious to the Arab world as saving Israel in a shooting war with the Arabs. Starting late last month and continuing into July, the Air Force has simply been moving supplies from the United States to "Cario West" airfield to support a squadron of 12F4e fighter aircraft that will be based in Egypt for training purposes.

But because the Arab world bitterly opposes the Camp David separate peace between Egypt and Israel, neither Spain nor Portugal was willing to risk affronting its Arab friends by helping Washington. The difference between 1973 and 1980 is eight years of decline.

Ideally, the Air Force should have been able to avoid refueling-in-fight altogether by filling the tanks of the transports at a base in the Azores (about 1,000 miles out in the Atlantic from the coast of Portugal). But here the reality of the shrunken American eagle intervened.

Delicate negotiations are under way between Washington and Lisbon over future American base rights in the Azores. President Carter decided these talks were too sensitive to risk asking land rights for the Cario airlift.

When both Iberian countries rejected the routine request to refuel the airlift by tankers flown from their territory, the State and the Defense departments were surprised, to put it mildly. Never before had there been such a turndown; never before had bases far to the north in England had to be used to refuel strategic airlift in the south Atlantic.

This humbling inconvenience for a super-power can be traced to Carter's long cutback of U.S. defense spending, a cutback declared ended when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. As a part of the administration's reversal, Defense Secretary Harold Brown is now asking Congress for a major rebuilding of America's dangerously insufficient strategic airlift -- large, long-range carriers to supply Carter's new Rapid Deployment Force to protect the Persian Gulf.

But in the bowels of the Pentagon, a different philosophy has powerful Air Force backers. They want a new non-strategic airlift to haul material within a single theater, such as the European theater, capable of taking off and landing on very short runways. This sounds like some variety of the old AMST, rejected in the mid-1970s as useless.

In closed-door testimony June 5, Brown made clear that contrary to top Air Force officers, the Defense Department wants Congress to authorize the new strategic CX airlift for quick movement of U.S. ground power to trouble spots near the Persian Gulf. He made the same point July 18 in an urgent letter to Sen. John Stennis, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

This typical Pentagon squabble coincides with Iberia's lesson on the cost of diminished national prestige. It is, in the words of a former top U.S. diplomat, "utterly ridiculous" for Sapin or Portugal to allow anti-Egyptian Arab states to dictate such refinements of their foreign policies. Yet, lacking the muscle or the will to make its case, the Carter administration accepts what is offered, quietly, without protest. With a perpetually shrinking power base, it concentrates on long-range airlift to minimize the grim condition.