Washington — Campaign rhetoric to the contrary, the major presidential contenders are not far apart on national defense and related issues of foreign policy. President Carter, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Rep. John B. Anderson all say, with varying nuances, that they favor a strong US defense establishment, more independence from foreign oil, and closer work with allies.
All have scrupulously avoided criticism of Israel, especially since President Carter's apology for the US vote in favor of a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements, and his announcement March 19 of separate new "Camp David" talks with Egypt and Israel on Palestinian autonomy.
A rapid survey of presidential aspirants' answers to questions put to them weeks ago by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, published here in a book entitled "The Candidates 1980: Where they Stand," shows little variety:
* President Carter does not mention in the survey his call for a registration for a possible draft by young men and women. The proposal is in serious trouble in Congress, and draft opponents have scheduled major protest rallies March 22.
In the survey the President emphasizes "working with our allies to protect our vital interests in the Persian Gulf," which he said Jan. 23 the UNited States would defend with its own forces.
Mr. Carter wants to ensure that US strategic nuclear forces have "equivalence" with the Soviet Union (equivalence that his hawkish critics say already has been lost). He would modernize US cruise missiles and the B-52 bomber and upgrade the US strategic submarine missile force.
* Senator Kennedy's defense watchword is "usable force." In the survey, he also omits mention of draft registration, which he opposes. Instead of a top-heavy nuclear or conventional force, he explains, "our emphasis should be not only on strategic deterrence but on developing . . . a force that is fighting- trim, equipped with workable and working weapons."
However, Senator Kennedy adds, "national security cannot be purchased by merely spending more money. What we need are defense resources effectively directed to actual military requirements and assurances that our nation can rely upon capable and cost-effective weapons."
Mr. Carter said similar things in his recent messages calling for budgetary austerity in the Defense Department to go with his drastic anti-inflation cuts in order federal departments.
Toward the Soviet Union, Senator Kennedy would "not foreclose every opening," since the invasion of Afghanistan "is not the first abuse of Soviet power, nor will it be the last, and it must not become the end of the world."
(This, too, is quite close to statements by some of President Carter's aides, who hope the US Senate will be able to consider and ratify the delayed SALT II arms-limitation treaty this year.)
* Ronald Reagan wants to give "first priority" to rebuilding US arms power. He wants to "restore" main items of President Ford's 1976 defense budget.
In televised debates, Mr. Reagan has strongly praised Israel as a "bastion of Middle East democracy" and urged that the United States should not talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
* George Bush, citing his experience as US envoy in China, says that in writing the word "crisis," the Chinese language joins two characters -- one standing for "danger," the other for "opportunity." He sees both in the present US situation.
Mr. Bush would stop "beating old friends over the head because we disagree with their internal policies."
Mr. Bush wants male and female draft registration, new bombers, cruise missiles, a "three-ocean navy," and tactical forces with greater readiness.
* John Anderson urges "not shrinking from military competition with the Soviet Union," while concentrating "on diplomatic, economic, political, and technological" innovation.
The liberal Illinois congressman would beef up US research and development, and work harder to "insulate" the US from foreign control of energy supplies.