As President Carter works to counter Soviet expansion, some potential US allies are giving a new twist to an old Groucho Marx line -- saying, in effect, that any club that would accept their own neighbors as members may not be worth joining.
Put more starkly, the United States is facing three serious and related complications in peddling a "Carter doctrine" in Southwest Asia, the Mideast, and southern Europe. The complications are:
* Potential buyers of the doctrine, although genuinely concerned over Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan, remain equally mistrustful of one another. Perennial local rivalries have not just disappeared because the Kremlin rolled its tanks and troops into Kabul.
* The Soviet's neighbors seem largely unconvinced that the Moscow threat outweighs dangers from longstanding foes closer to home.
* Washington's entanglement in these regional rivalries over the years inevitably has bred resentment among states that feel the Americans treated them unfairly. Soviet military muscle notwithstanding, this makes some countries reluctant to line up too closely or quickly with the Carter administration.
Ideally, US diplomats would like to count on countries such as Greece, Turkey , Pakistan, India, Iran, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, and others in the Arab world in building at least a loose regional alignment in opposition to the Soviets.
But Greece doesn't like Turkey. India doesn't like Pakistan. Iran and Iraq have been skirmishing along their common frontier. None of the Arab states, not even Egypt, seems enamored of the prospect of being on the same strategic team as Israel.
And the Israelis -- despite their US-mediated peace treaty and Egypt -- do not seem to welcome the idea of expanded Western military assistance to the Egyptians, much less to other Arab states.
Although countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia -- historically suspicious of the Soviets -- seem basically sympathetic to President Carter's tough, new line towrd Moscow, even they harbor masgivings over past US policy.
The Pakistanis remain piqued by Washington's 1979 break in aid over the Pakistani military's alleged plans to go nuclear. The Turks have not forgotten Washington's arms embargo following their 1974 invasion of Cyprus (and, in any case, they are jittery about taking too active a role in reply to the aggression of a neighbor so powerful and so close as the Soviet Union). Israeli officials reject hints of American pressure for a softer negotiating line toward the Palestinians.
Greece offers one graphic study in potential obstacles to US hopes for a cohesive regional response to Soviet moves in Afghanistan.
The government of Prime Minister Constantine Caramanlis is fundamentally pro-Western, but sometimes loathe to stress this publicly. Although Greece pulled out of NATO's military wing in response to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus , the Athens government would like to rejoin.
The Turks, key NATO members on the Soviets' southern frontier, have been effectively vetoing that move by demanding wide regional prerogatives for themselves, particularly in regard to disputed air and sea space in the Aegean.
"The Greeks share President Carter's concern over recent Soviet actions," one diplomat in Athens commented. "But they are also concerned that a US counterstrategy could serve as a cover for expanded Turkish power."
The "Turkish threat" -- not the Soviet one now trumpeted by Washington -- remains the No. 1 foreign-policy issue here. Mr. Caramanlis's main political rivals vocally oppose a closer alignment with the West or any hints of a lowered guard against Turkey. With general elections due by next year, the Caramanlis government must tread carefully.
Elsewhere in the region, the post-Afghanistan equation seems no less complex.
India's Indira Gandhi, after regaining power early this year, made it clear she does not relish the idea of an American armament of neighboring Pakistan.
Even a moderate Arab power like Saudi Arabia, while privately welcoming US moves to beep up its military capabilities in the region, have emphasized their reluctance to cuddle too closely with a superpower sending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Israel. It is high time, Saudi and other Arab officials stress, for Washington to wrest concessions from Israel on an overall Middle East peace formula.
Israel seems equally uncomfortable with the idea US military aid to the Arabs , even to Egypt.
Although officials in Israel had not commented publicly at this writing, the Jerusalem Post reported Israeli "concern" Feb. 18 over newspaper reports that Washington would be funneling billions of dollars in sophisticated military equipment to Egypt in the next five to eight years.
The concensus among Israeli officials, the Post said, "seems to be that the Americans would be stepping up the arms race, and even possibly undermining the peace process between Israel and Egypt, if they went through with the ideal."