Jimmy Carter made only the glib point when he charged that Ronald Reagan has repeatedly "called for the use of American force to address problems that arise diplomatically between nations."

The hard point Carter never got to: when should force be used? For surely there are some circumstances.It is at least conceivable that on some of the occasions when Reagan called for the use of force, he was right.

It is revealing to look at some of the particular "problems that arise diplomatically between nations" cited by Carter:

1)There was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is a bit odd that this should be fitted in as a "diplomatic" problem.It was not, after all, an argument over tariffs but a clear-cut case of aggression. In any event, Reagan said we should surround Cuba and stop all traffic in and out. Dangerous stuff? Unquestionably. Cuba for Afghanistan is a strategic and political mismatch. Still, I have the lingering feeling that one of the elements of danger would have been whether the Soviets thought Carter, if he had announced a blockade, meant it. Suppose the Soviets had previously been given reason to believe that if they invaded Afghanistan, Carter might very well do something way out like cutting off Cuba. It would be a dangerous world in which such calculations were made, but the one we are living in is dangerous, too.

2)Then there was North Korea's seizure of the Pueblo in 1968 -- another funny one to designate as a "diplomatic" problem. Reagan said we should give 24 hours' notice and then go in after the ship. President Johnson decided otherwise. But it was not wild to consider a military response to a military provocation committed by an outlaw state. The operative question, even in hindsight, should be simply whether you think it would have worked.

3)Reagan said in early 1976 at a time of Soviet involvement in Angola: "Out. We'll let them [angolans] do the fighting or you're going to have to deal with us." Angola in 1976 was a bad place and time for the United States to attempt to rescue a failed regional policy by means of a chancy intervention. Carter seems to have forgotten, however, as Reagan seemed not to grasp at the time, that the Ford administration was trying precisely, by means of the CIA, to make the Soviets "deal with us" in Angola, and that Congress repudiated the policy.

4)As for Ecuador's seizures of American tuna boats, Reagan proposed giving them a high-seas destroyer escort. I would't have done it because of the predictable Latin explosion. But again, the problem was not strictly "diplomatic" -- the Ecuadoreans created it by using force against American commercial boats. There are greater outrages than providing a military escort to threatened civilians who are acting within the law.

5) and 6)Reagan indicated readiness in 1976 to send "occupation forces" to oversee a transition to majority rule in Rhodesia, and to put American troops into a Lebanon torn by civil war. These would have been, I believe, political misjudgments. It seems only fair to note, however, that notwithstanding Carter's purpose in summoning up the specter, Reagan's stated intent in both places was to put American troops upon request into a peacekeeping role. He did not mean to send them in shooting for some American cowboy purpose.

7)As for holding Reagan up to abuse for having agreed "to show a [military] presence in the Middle East," that is a bizarre pose to be struck by a president who has been thickening the American military presence everywhere he can in the region and, at home, loudly claiming political credit for doing so.

Carter evidently feels he can finesse the rap on him for being weak and wobbly and, to his political profit, cast himself as cool and restrained and Reagan as trigger-happy. I am pleased to see Reagan so challenged. I am disturbed by some of the things he has said, and by some of the emanations arising from him and from various advisers. He needs to show he does not regard the world as the frontier where the gunslinger holds sway.

But Carter's method of going after Reagan on this score is not the most convincing. "The record is there," Carter says of Reagan. "To call for the use of military forces in a very dangerous situation has been a repeated habit of his." When else would one call for force except in a very dangerous situation? The question is when it is wise to call for force and what sort of diplomacy, what measure of credibility -- will best keep situations from deteriorating so that force does not become either a temptation or a necessity. That is what the campaign debate needs to be about now.