NEW YORK — IF HENRY KISSINGER were not very much alive he would be rolling over in his grave at President Bush's decision to let the Soviet Union involve itself in Middle East peace efforts -- a possibility that in Cold War days Kissinger opposed with theological intensity.
With equal fervor, many Americans despise terrorism. They must be thunderstruck to see Secretary of State Baker off to Damascus for amicable talks with President Hafez al-Assad, even though the Bush administration holds Syria responsible for the bombing of Pan Am 103, and other notorious acts.
These are striking examples of the extent to which Bush -- even if he did maintain his vacation schedule -- has placed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and his determination to reverse it, at the top of his administration's priorities.
They may be defensible decisions, with the Cold War over and Assad sending troops to help defend Saudi Arabia; but is the crisis in the desert really the most important problem facing Americans?
Not at all. West Germany and the Soviet Union, for instance, now have agreed on how to share the costs of Soviet troop withdrawals from East Germany; so German reunification actually will take place on Oct. 3, barely three weeks from now.
In the long run, this might be the most important event of 1990, or the decade; but it's taking place in a vacuum of public and perhaps official discussion, owing to the Middle East frenzy created by a dedicated administration and a headline-happy press.
Only five weeks ago the major topics of American political discussion were the nomination of David Souter to the Supreme Court, the $50 billion S&L scandal that made Neil Bush a household name, an economy that even an upbeat president called "sluggish," his broken pledge to oppose new taxes, and efforts to deal with the budget deficit.
None of these matters have disappeared or been managed. Though Senate hearings on Souter are at hand, all have taken second place to the idea of the U.S. standing tall in the desert, in opposition to aggression and in defense of oil.
It's not clear which comes first, and both are admittedly important; but so are other problems that existed before Saddam Hussein loosed his tanks -- problems that will not be solved by more troops from Egypt or more presidential backslapping in Helsinki.
In keeping to his August vacation schedule, Bush sought to show that he was not hostage to the Middle East crisis, as President Carter was thought to have been when Iran was holding U.S. hostages.
Staying in Maine thus made some sense. In fact, Bush's single-minded attention to the Iraqi problem, however successful his efforts, may have made him as much a hotage to a single issue as Carter was.
In particular, that sluggish U.S. economy, and the dubious determination of Democrats and Republicans alike to raise taxes anyway, demands Bush's attention as much as does the Middle East.
An economic collapse at home would make a major military commitment abroad incongruous, if not impossible, even with Saudi money as a backup. And what would distinguish one supposed superpower from another if each tried to maintain a military front on top of an economy sliding into ruin?
It has largely escaped notice, moreover, in Americans' persistent innocence of even their own history, that Bush has reverted to the sort of imperial presidential conduct that the Vietnam War should have taught the nation to question.
It's true that he has kept Congress informed about his Middle East policy; but the strategy, decisions and announced goals all have been his, including one that could backfire -- to expel Iraq from Kuwait and restore the emirate.
Few now dispute that goal; but suppose Iraq suddenly withdraws from Kuwait, contradicting Saddam but bowing to overpowering opposition as well as to Bush's demands.
That would bring about the end of the blockade, the embargo and the anti-Iraq coalition, force Bush to bring U.S. troops home and leave Iraq unscathed as a military power. -- perhaps, having defied the U.S. and even enhanced as a dominant voice in the Middle East.
Bush's crisis management might not then seem so impressive; both Congress and the public might ask embarrassing questions, such as: Who was the real winner? And who took the U.S. out on a limb that could be cut off behind it?