In the little town of Boone, Iowa, last month. Senator Edward Kennedy was asked one of the crucial questions of the 1980 campaign. The question was put by Mrs. Virginia Turk, a minister's wife: "What do you think Soviet intentions are in the [Indian] subcontinent and in the Middle East?" Kennedy replied: "I don't know what the intention of the Soviet Union is, but what we have to do is to take a policy, irrespective of their intentions, that they will respect." He said the key elements were a strengthening of US military capabilities in the region and closer relations with China "in a limited way." He concluded: "I do not think today that American policy should depend on what we think the Soviets may do. We should take actions based on what the Soviets do." Kennedy's answer satisfied Mrs. Turk, and she voted for Kennedy in the Iowa primary. But this answer is not really satisfactory. Kennedy's "major policy address" last Monday was an opportunity to provide a well thought out analysis of what Kennedy thinks the Soviets are up to in the world, and what America's response should be. But it contained nothing of the kind. Rather, the speech's foreign policy section was a hodgepodge of bashes at President Carter--some apt, others merely cheap. It did not demonstrate that Edward Kennedy can give us what he correctly claims Jimmy Carter has not: clear, consistent leadership.

President Carter's foreign policy has been characterized most of all by an absence of strategy, of overriding goals and integrated plans to reach them. The president has bounced from the innocence of Notre Dame (no "inordinate fear of communism" here) to the impotence of Annapolis (let the Soviets choose between cooperation and confrontation) to hysteria over Afghanistan ("the most serious threat to peace since World War II"). With his advisers in conflict about Soviet intentions, and with the president himself apparently confused, the administration has been forced constantly to react to Soviet actions. And this is exactly what Kennedy prescribed in his response to Mrs. Turk in Iowa. Kennedy aides promise that another major policy speech is coming which will address the issue of US-Soviet relations. But for the moment, we are still left to wonder what this would-be president thinks about what is still the most critical question of foreign policy.

Now let us turn From what Kennedy didn't say at Georgetown University to what he did say and do. This speech was intended to revive the Kennedy candidacy, to give it a logic, to answer the question still hanging from Kennedy's disastrous interview last fall on CBS: "Why do you want to be president?" We do not know how the speech played with voters; but on another political level, it was a smashing success. It delineated the differences between Kennedy and Carter, especially on domestic policy. Kennedy reemerged as the fighting liberal, the advocate of tax reform and national health care, the champion of the handicapped, minorities, the aged, and the poor. In the real world, it's doubtful that Kennedy, even as president, would be able to fulfill all the goals for which he spoke, let alone all at once. To batter Carter for increasing the federal deficit, as Kennedy did, and also to promise large new domestic programs, strikes me as disingenuous. To advocate deregulation of industry as a spur to productivity, and also to call for "mandatory controls, as long as necessary, across the board--not only on wages and prices, but also on profits, dividends, interest rates and rent" is inconsistent. But at least Kennedy really gave Democrats a clear choice again--between a Democrat who has chosen to govern as a Republican, and a Democrat who demands restoration of traditional Democratic social priorities. Carter's economic policies, as Kennedy charged, have failed. The question Democrats will have to decide is whether Kennedy's will work any better.

One of Kennedy's proposals is clearly sound. That is gasoline rationing. Carter's failure to take this step is a damning commentary on his leadership, a declaration of political cowardice. Rationing by tax and rebate is preferable to rationing by coupons, as Kennedy proposed, but either is preferable to doing nothing. In his State of the Union message and in other speeches. President Carter has said that Americans must sacrifice in order to restore the economy and conserve energy. But his actual program--an oil import quota for 1980 that permits more imports than in 1979--is a sham. Continued controls on domestic oil prices, such as Kennedy advocates, will inevitably discourage conservation and development of new energy sources too. I think America needs both oil price deregulation--with a windfall profits tax and rebates to the poor--and rationing.

Effective reduction of US energy consumption has a foreign policy purpose beyond the obvious one of making the US less subject to OPEC oil producers. Since the US now derives just 10 percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf, while Europe and Japan get most of theirs from the region, a US energy program that allows us to forgo Arab supplies will put pressure on our allies to share in defense of the Gulf, which they are now leaving to the US. The Carter administration is attempting to use diplomacy and taunting leaks to the press to induce our allies to assist us. Kennedy rightly perceives that if we do not need Arab oil to operate our economy, our willingness to defend the Arabs will be an act of world political leadership, and not one of desperation. But it is simply demagogic for Kennedy to say, as he did at Georgetown, that "I am sure every American would prefer to sacrifice a little gasoline rather than shed American blood to defend OPEC pipelines in the Middle East." Even if we bad total oil independence, we still would have an obligation, as leaders of an alliance, to prevent Soviet domination of the rest of the world's major oil source. Only by letting the Soviets know that we are willing to shed blood, if necessary, can we deter them from pushing aggression to the point where we will have to shed blood indeed.

Kennedy is quite right--and deserves the nation's thanks for saying it--that the Afghanistan crisis is not really the gravest threat to peace since World War II. The various Berlin crises, the Cuban missile crisis, Korea, and Vietnam obviously were graver.

But Kennedy's treatment of Afghanistan had misrepresentations of its own. Afghanistan, Kennedy said, "passed behind the Iron Curtain, not in 1980, but in 1978, with hardly a word of regret from the Carter administration," The administration, Kennedy said, had "ignored the warning signals" of an imminent Soviet invasion and "said virtually nothing" until after it. In fact, Kennedy charged. President Carter "might have invited the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan" by asserting last fall that the presence of Soviet troops in Cuba was "unacceptable"'-and then proceeding to accept them.

Carter did indeed panic in the "Cuban soldier crisis," but there is no evidence that this led the Soviets to invade Afghanistan. In his speech, Kennedy ritually condemned the "brutal Soviet invasion of Afghanistan"--and then proceeded to explain it away in terms of Soviet interests: "Years ago, Afghanistan passed under Soviet influence. . . . When two Marxist regimes in Kabul failed to put down Afghan resistance, the Russians decided to install a third regime and to put down the insurgency themselves, Afghanistan, as they saw it, was slipping away." So, here we have Kennedy saying that the Soviet invasion is unacceptable--and then accepting it. It is not a lot different from what Carter did about Cuba.

Kennedy wants to have it both ways--blast Carter from the right, then jump to the left and accuse him of overreaction. He says, in effect: "This terrible thing is all Carter's fault, but, really. Carter is making it out to be more terrible than it is." Where is Ted Kennedy, anyway? Was he among those warning of an imminent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Answer: no. Would he have done more to get the Soviets out of Cuba? Probable answer: no, be would have declared the status quo acceptable in the first place. If Edward Kennedy were president, I suspect, the Soviets would be in Afghanistan just as they are now, and for exactly the same reason: they saw an opportunity to advance their global interests, calculated that the American president would do nothing about it, and moved.

Now what should the president do? Kennedy, who is not president, says he would remain calm. He would not, apparently, put forward a "doctrine" defining the Persian Gulf as a vital American interest worth defending. "This is a real crisis," he says, "but it is also part of the recurrent condition that has periodically disturbed the peace for a third of a century. It must be countered, but it must not become so consuming that we lose sight of more vital interests." Such as Yugoslavia, he said, and at Georgetown he took a slapshot at Carter's 1976 campaign statement that the US would not go to war to defend that country. Would Kennedy go to war to defend Yugoslavia, but not to defend the source of most of the free world's oil supplies? What are his priorities? He did not explain.

Kennedy called for "a measured response to the potential threat in the Persian Gulf," and condemned the Carter administration for resorting to "empty symbols." Stripped of the so-called symbols, however, Kennedy's actions in the region would be little different from Carter's. He would try to enlist cooperation from our NATO allies and moderates in the Islamic orbit in defending the area. He would promote anti-Soviet condemnations in the UN and from individual states of the third world. He would strengthen US naval and air power in the Indian Ocean, "carefully" establish US "facilities," and give increased military aid to countries in the region, including Pakistan. He would offer "economic and political assistance" to nations threatened by internal subversion. In return for defense, he would try to make oil-producing states agree to guarantee supplies and prices of petroleum. It's a good agenda; In fact it's approximately President Carter's agenda. Maybe Kennedy could do it better, but there is no guarantee. What the nations of the Persian Gulf region have doubted most is American commitment--the willingness to go to their defense--and our power to back it up. Historically, Kennedy has been opposed to US military commitment in the Gulf region. His disparagement of the Carter doctrine suggests that he still is.

And his disparagement of Carter's "symbols" suggests that Kennedy is unwilling to resort to measures that might involve domestic political pain. Kennedy is against an embargo of grain to the Soviet Union, a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, and institution of draft registration. The first two are indeed symbols--though not only symbols. They are justified actions in view of Soviet aggression, even if they make Iowa farmers unhappy or irritate US athletes and television sports fans.

Draft registration is a symbol, too, but it is no empty one. It is a method of saying to a doubting world: the United States takes Soviet aggression seriously, and is willing to prepare to meet it by force, if necessary. It is a measured step. It is not a mobilization, it is not even an actual draft. But if armed conflict ever is necessary, it should be fought by Americans representing all social and economic groups, not just people who are driven by their poverty to "volunteer." In 1970 and 1971, this very logic led Edward Kennedy to oppose creation of the all-volunteer army. In 1980, it seems, currying favor with the country's college students is more important.

But what kind of tactician is Kennedy when he opposes all economic sanctions against Iran? "They will only propel Iran toward the Soviet Union," Kennedy charged. "They will do nothing to bring the hostages home." With more than a touch of demagoguery, Kennedy said: "Eighty-six days [of captivity] is enough. It is time to bring the hostages home." His proposal: US support for a UN commission to investigate Iranian grievances, to commence its work when the hostages are released. There is nothing wrong with the idea of a UN commission, but there is no guarantee that such a step would lead to the hostages' release at all. Waving bunches of carrots and no sticks at the Ayatollah Khomeini will be interpreted in Qom as a sign of US weakness. Why shouldn't it lead Khomeini to demand more carrots still--say, part of the shah's treasure, or US pressure on Panama to ship the shah back to Iran? Kennedy said no one should ever suspect the United States will yield to blackmail, but that is what he is courting. He said no one should ever doubt that America is ready to negotiate its way out of the hostage crisis. Economic sanctions can be delayed during talks, but the president should have them in reserve--as a stick--to improve chances that negotiations will succeed.

Kennedy alleged that spending more on defense is also an empty symbol. This is wrong. For more than a decade, the United States continuously reduced its defense outlays, believing that our restraint would be matched by the Soviet Union. Edward Kennedy was a leader in cutting Pentagon expenditures. The result is that the United States is behind the Soviet Union, or falling behind, in nearly every measure of deterrence--strategic nuclear, tactical nuclear, and conventional. To get arms to Israel in 1973, we had to strip NATO. We would have to do it again in the event of another Mideast conflict, and then we would have nothing left with which to deter Soviet aggression in, say, Yugoslavia. With what would we defend Thailand if the Vietnamese invaded to scatter the hapless Cambodian refugees? We do not have enough ships, planes, or tanks to defend our interests, and we must build them. Suddenly Kennedy has become aware of the need for some defense increases. He is in favor of three percent more for the Pentagon, but not five percent. He claims that the US needs more for "conventional weaponry" and "readiness." But what confidence can one have that Kennedy really thought about defense needs and isn't just taking the currently fashionable pose that allows liberals to be "for defense" and still anti-Pentagon? There maybe merit to the case that US defense systems employ too much high technology for the real battlefield and are too expensive per unit. There is merit to the argument that the US needs more small ships and more simple planes and more ordinary tanks than the Pentagon and defense contractors are choosing. But it would take several years to reshape defense procurement machinery to give us better systems. It will take even more years to get the new systems into production and on line. Meanwhile, the United States needs more weaponry, and we are going to be stuck with what the Pentagon proposes. We do not have to build all of it. Congress does not have to give a panicky carte blanche to the generals, but before we take defense advice from Edward Kennedy, he is going to have to do more thinking about the subject. If we don't have enough to defend ourselves now, he is one of those responsible.

For much of his 17-year Senate career, Edward Kennedy has shared the belief that Soviet leaders were more or less like us, that they shared our distaste for conflict, that they desperately wanted to improve the domestic lot of their people, that tension in the world was as much our fault as theirs. All of this is simply not so. The Soviet Union is an imperialistic, militaristic power, which has used detente as a screen behind which to advance Its interests by stealth, subversion, and proxy aggression. Now It is emboldened to push its own troops into an area bordering on vital American interests. Kennedy is right that we should not abandon hopes for nuclear arms control. SALT involves the survival of mankind, which is of mutual interest to us and the Soviets, But even our ability to reach a SALT agreement depends on American willingness to build weapons systems that can be used in trade. The Soviets simply do not bargain with countries they deem weaker. They just take. And the principle applies on the non-nuclear level as well: if we want the Soviets to be restrained, we will have to show them that unrestrained behavior will involve unacceptable penalties.

Edward Kennedy has shown us he has a social vision, a set of economic alternatives that are worthy of the Democratic party. He has called for a strong new energy policy and he has shown us a hint that he can devise a global strategy. But until he answers Mrs. Turk's question, until he shows he understands the Soviet threat and has measures to meet it, he has not demonstrated he is prepared to lead America in the 1980s. Unfortunately neither has Jimmy Carter.