SOMETHING ODD and unfortunate is taking place in Congress on the matter of the proposed sale of $354 million worth of missiles to Saudi Arabia. The Israelis are not objecting to the sale. The pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has decided not to throw its weight actively against the sale. Yet the foreign relations committees of both houses have voted against, and majorities on the floor may follow. The question is whether Congress, especially the Senate, will be able to muster a two-thirds vote to override the expected presidential veto of a resolution of disapproval. It could be close.

What appears to have happened is that the administration has not focused sharply enough on explaining the Saudi transaction, and reflexive general opponents of arms sales to Arabs have seized on transient and superficial considerations to sway inattentive colleagues. Certainly there is little visible substance to the opposition.

The missiles in question, for example, are all of kinds the Saudis have bought before, integrated into their military forces and kept from irresponsible hands. The requirement for the United States to make good on routine resupply, at a moment when Iran is pressing aggressively against the moderate Gulf states should be evident to any- one concerned with the stability of this region. The opponents declare with a certain flourish that the Saudis deplored the attack on Libya and have otherwise conducted their own foreign policy, not to speak of their own oil policy. This is an approach more suitable to a high school debate. Of course the Saudis have a Saudi purpose and perspective. The relevant consideration is whether there is not a broad overlap of Saudi and American interests, and whether it is not to American advantage to try to make it broader. It takes an unusual narrow-mindedness to demand an identity of views down the line, or to think that this is a good time to teach the Saudis a lesson in obedience.

Apart from the fact that obedience lessons are never an intelligent instrument of foreign policy, it is actually just about the worst time. The American attack on Libya had its reasons, but it also had its effects, and one of them is a sharp dilemma for those Arab states that, like Saudi Arabia, hope to enjoy the benefits of Arab comradeship and American patronage at the same time. The most efficient way to turn a difficult situation into a disastrous one is for the United States to show it cannot distinguish between radical Arab states that practice terror and moderate Arab states that seek shelter. The former must be isolated, the latter must be encouraged. That compels Washington to show its understanding, in palpable ways, of the legitimate security needs of friendly Arab states.