JERUSALEM — ON THE plane from Zurich to Tel Aviv, passengers stare at a newspaper photograph that tells an astonishing story: how swiftly and dangerously history can repeat itself.
There stands the president of the United States, an exuberant smile on his face, the American flag behind him. At his left stands another smiling president, Hafez Assad of Syria -- dictator, assassin of thousands of his own people, master of terrorists who specialize in bombing airplanes.
Assad smiles because the United States has made him the first winner in the Persian Gulf confrontation.
The story told by the photograph reads clearly. Once again, and for the second time in barely four months, the United States is pandering to a Middle East dictator.
It is a policy that allowed Saddam Hussein to think he could get away with invading Kuwait. It is the policy that once again will bring crisis and danger to the United States and the Middle East.
Nobody can know yet how the story of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait will turn out, or whether American men and women will die in the desert before the chapter is ended.
But without firing a shot at the Iraqis, the Syrian can count his spoils already.
Assad used the crisis -- and American acquiescence -- to turn Lebanon into a colony. In the process he slaughtered another 800 or so people without a word of protest from the United States.
He collected a billion-dollar subsidy from the Saudis and will collect more billions soon. And now he wins praise and political prestige from the United States -- which lists his country as a terrorist nation.
The U.S. embrace may be the most valuable prize of all. It will help Assad get more arms from the West, now that the Soviet Union can no longer afford to supply him with missiles, tanks and planes. And it will help him attain a major political role at the United Nations and in the Middle East that he has sought so long.
The financial, political and territorial payoff to Assad was in return for joining the coalition against Saddam. Since he had no other real option, the generosity of the reward must have astonished him.
Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein believe in and rule through the same kind of Middle Eastern fascism -- rigid dictatorship, suppression of all opposition and minorities, aggression against neighboring countries, terror at home and abroad. But they hate and fear each other because of their contest for domination of the Arab world.
For 20 years Assad has looked for a way of cutting Saddam's political throat. So he grabbed the opportunity of joining the coalition against Iraq. He should have paid Washington for the privilege.
With Saddam gone or diminished, Syria can become the major Arab influence in the Middle East. All Assad will need is a little help from the West.
He will try to use that power to lead a crusade to annihilate Israel and destroy the influence of his current Western allies. He sees this crusade as the one sure path to leadership of the Arab world.
He will be in no hurry because he has been defeated by the Israelis three times. But he has honed his patience and knows how to wait.
Washington lets it be known that Bush asked Assad to extradite the Palestinian participants in the bombing of Pan Am 103, led by Assad's protege Ahmed Jibril and operating out of Syria.
Yes, of course, and then Assad will turn himself over for trial in New York so that his terrorists can disclose his own complicity.
Will Assad at last use his influence to free American hostages held by terrorist bands in Syrian-occupied Lebanon? Possibly -- he and the other terrorists may feel that they have wrung full value out of the hostages by now and can cash them in for more political praise from the United States.
But the basic reason for the coddling of the Syrian dictator is that Bush thinks it would guarantee that Damascus keep firm in the fight against Saddam.
It is a delusion. Assad will remain in the anti-Iraq coalition as long as it suits his interest -- not one day less or one day more.
The Bush administration does not seem to grasp an old lesson of history taught again by the invasion of Kuwait: The appeasement of dictators is the prelude to war.
The failure to learn that is the saddest and most dangerous part of the story told by the photograph of the two smiling presidents.