Labor strife in Poland gave the United States a chance to put Russia on the diplomatic defensive. But for electoral reasons, Washington wants to give relations with Moscow a positive look.

So here at the United Nations, American diplomats have ignored ambiguous Soviet behavior to create the appearance of Big Two cooperation in both arms control and moves to stop the fighting in Iran and Iraq. With the United States going limp, otehr countries are moving to accommodate Russia on other issues -- especially Afghanistan.

The trouble that broke out in Poland last: month stretched the Russians in several ways. The Kremlin has already been obliged to send economic aid. It may eventually have to apply some muscle. So the overtures made by Moscow. to Western Europe have been compromised. The Russians are in particularly poor position to press on their demand that NATO abandon its plan for modernizing its medium-range missiles, or Theater Nuclear Forces, in Western Europe.

In these conditons, the United States could have demanded Soviet concessins as a price for the TNF negotiations. The russians could have medium-range missile -- the SS20. Or even to commit to a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But President Carter's electoral strategy casts him as a peacemaker and Ronald Reagan as the agent of war. At his news conference on Sept. 18, the president declared that the opening of talks with Russia on Theater Nuclear Forces would be a step toward peace. So Secretary of State Edmund Muskie came up to the general Assembly here determined to announced an accord with Andrei Gromyko.

The Soviet foreign minister did not make it easy. In his formal speech on Sept. 23, Gromyko accused the United States of pushing the arms race and dismissed charges that Russia's invasion of Afghanistan aggravated tension as arguments "built on sand" and believed "only by the guillible."

In his private talk with Muskie two days later, Gromyko gave no ground on Afghanistan. While he did say Russia wanted to contain the war between Iraq and Iran, he refused to stipulate that the Soviet Union wuld not send arms to Iraq. Behind the scenes, moreover, Russian diplomats worked hand in glove with the Iraqis in the shaping of Security Council resolution for a cease-fire.

Still, Muskie declared after the meeting with Gromyko that both the United States and the Soviet Union were in "neutral position" regardng the war between Iran and Iraq. He announced that talks for reducing medium-range missiles in Europe would begin in Geneva Oct. 13. While he acknowledged the trouble caused by the invasion of Afghanistan, he said was in the work "a slow process . . . to climb back to a more normal relationship."

The administration's keep interest in accommodation with Moscow has immediate consequences for Afghanistan. While the fighting still goes on there, virtually all countries believe the United States has acquiesced in the Soviet aggression. Indeed, attempting is now turning toward holding in a neutral position the country most immediately threatened by the Soviet presence in Afghanistan -- Pakistan.

President Zia ul-Haq, once a supplicant for foreign aid, is being courted assiduously by the United States and its allies. Zia has been accorded the lead position in the effort by a group of Islamic countries to mediate the Iranian-Iraqi war. He will visit President Carter in the White House on Thursday.

Behind all the attention is worry that Zia will soon come to terms with the Russians. In particular it is feared that he may close the diplomatic door on the Afghanistan aggression by recognizing the Soviet puppet government in that country.

Thus, far from seizing the initiative offered by Russia's troubles in Poland, the United States finds itself on the defensive against further Soviet gains. That spectacle is not lost on the senior officials from all over the world who have collected here. "What we see coming out of Washington," a West European foreign minister told me, is "timidity, an aura of weakness." a