CHICAGO. — WHO LOST Kuwait? So far that question has served as a quaint footnote to the news from the Persian Gulf; but it could become a deadly serious matter, as one can see by the cautious wriggling maneuvers already undertaken by Secretary of State James Baker.
For now, the investigation into the matter has been almost lighthearted, as people grimace over this and that ''dug up from the recent past in praise of Saddam Hussein.''
The good words are by no means confined to the administration's diplomatic corps, even though the best-known comments were delivered to Saddam by our disappearing ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie.
But as recently as last April, senators -- both Democratic and Republican -- were stroking Saddam's fur and calling him a nice pussycat instead of a tiger.
Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who often mistakes himself for Will Rogers, gushed to Saddam that ''I enjoy meeting candid and open people.''
Senator Simpson assured the ruler, ''I believe that your problems lie with the Western media and not the U.S. government.''
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio joined in the love fest, saying that if he were Saddam's press agent he would just invite more people to come meet his client, since ''I have been sitting here and listening to you, and I am now aware that you are a strong and intelligent man and that you want peace.''
Senator Metzenbaum could not say it often or warmly enough:
''I believe, Mr. President, that you can be a very influential force for peace in the Middle East. But, as I said, I am not your public relations man.'' For that day, he was.
Everyone makes mistakes, but these embarrassing moments will turn to something far more grave if Americans begin to die in Saudi Arabia.
Parents will ask why their sons or daughters must pay for the mistakes of those who coddled and encouraged Saddam.
James Baker, an extraordinarily cautious man, seems to realize this. While other people are enjoying their moment in the sun as stars of the crisis -- Colin Powell and Richard Cheney and Brent Scowcroft -- Mr. Baker has been uncharacteristically reclusive.
He has put distance between himself and Ambassador Glaspie on the ''Meet the Press'' show, saying of his instructions to her that ''there are probably 312,000 or so cables that go out under my name.''
Besides, The Wall Street Journal received a very detailed account from Baker's State Department of the sanctions it almost put on Saddam last spring.
Mr. Baker was all ready to do the right thing, but he was so busy bringing about peace with the Soviet Union that the calendar slipped by too fast. We are not told why, if the department was thinking sanctions, its ambassador was denying that very point to Saddam himself. Mr. Baker is widely called the loser over the Gulf; but he may know something we do not.
If the bodies come flying home, it may be Colin Powell and his president who look bad. Dying for oil is bad enough. Dying for the administration's mistakes could be worse.