WASHINGTON — Washington-- UNDERSTANDABLY, the Bush administration line is that we are ''exceptionally pleased'' by Mikhail Gorbachev's limited cooperation with the alliance against Saddam Hussein. Any other line would suggest that Mr. Bush's extraordinary flight to Helsinki to enlist Soviet cooperation was a flop.
But foreign-policy experts, including Republicans who wish Mr. Bush well, believe the Soviet leader should and could do more, despite his political and economic troubles at home. U.S. and Soviet interests in the Middle East may be parallel, but they are not yet identical. By avoiding a deeper commitment, Mr. Gorbachev positions Moscow to emerge as a friend of the winner in the Gulf showdown, whoever that may be.
To be sure, the Soviet Union could have made things more difficult, by taking the side of Iraq, its long-time ally in the region. But that would have hurt Mr. Gorbachev with the Western allies, whose economic help he needs to continue perestroika. Instead, in this first post-cold war crisis Moscow has backed United Nations sanctions.
Yet it was clear in the presidents' joint press conference at Helsinki, and has become clearer since, that Mr. Gorbachev wants to see how the wind blows before doing anything more substantive. While he and Mr. Bush could talk in pleasant generalities about cooperation, the most immediate symbol of his support would have been pulling out all Soviet military advisers from Iraq, and this he refused to do.
His excuse was that the advisers were there under contract, and of course the Soviet Union couldn't possibly break a contract. As Sen. William Cohen says, pretending that a contract is more binding than the international laws broken by Saddam Hussein is absurd.
Mr. Cohen notes that U.S. intelligence sources put the number of Soviet advisers in Iraq near 1,000, rather than the 150 or so mentioned by Mr. Gorbachev. If they remain there helping maintain high-tech weapons to be used against U.S. troops, it will be hard to persuade Congress to vote for economic aid to the Soviet Union, he adds.
On the other hand, if those advisers are not free to leave, they are hostages like the Americans and others held in Iraq. In that case, Mr. Gorbachev's implication that he would bring them home if there were no contract would be a cover, to prevent public aggravation of his relations with Baghdad.
It is obvious now that Mr. Hussein's strategy in the face of the allied buildup is to sit out the crisis, avoiding any new provocation and hoping that popular backing in this country for intervention will dwindle. Meanwhile, he will try to inspire more demonstrations of Arab nationalism to undercut such regional opponents as Egypt and Syria.
Joseph Sisco, now a risk-assessment consultant, spent years as a U.S. diplomat trying to divine the Mideast future and block Soviet influence there. Now he sees Soviet ambitions boosted by Washington, as Mr. Bush not only accepts but asks for more Soviet involvement.
Mr. Gorbachev has genuine domestic reasons for limiting cooperation. He has his own Moslem problem in the Soviet republics of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia, and may fear Shiite uprisings inspired from across his southern border in Iran.
Anti-Americanism, endemic in the Middle East, will worsen if U.S. forces attack Iraq. If growing pan-Arabism should destabilize Jordan's King Hussein, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and other opponents of Mr. Hussein, Moscow's restraint in this crisis will strengthen Soviet influence more than its earlier assertive thrusts into the region. But that restraint also permits Mr. Gorbachev to be a potential mediator.
If the current Gulf crisis should end without war, that would set the stage for a renewed push to solve the Israeli-Palestine dispute. As Mr. Sisco says, since Mr. Bush has invited more Soviet involvement in the area, Washington presumably would allow Moscow a prominent role in that effort. While neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union could bring about Mideast peace alone, both together might succeed in the chastened atmosphere following this year's brush with all-out war.
If, that is, there is no war. A long series of ifs must turn out right for the showdown in the desert to lead to a peace the world has sought for decades.