PARIS. — IT IS NOT a season to be merry. Christmas occurs as war awaits just 21 days down the calendar.
It is, of course, a mistake to think that Christianity or the other great monotheisms have offered peace in this world. The condition of existence is struggle, the conflict not only that of good with evil -- how simple that is! -- but of relative good with relative good. Christ said that he brought not peace but the sword.
Islam is a warrior religion; the world in recent years has been allowed no mistake about that. Saddam Hussein promises his fellow-Arabs a victory in emulation of Saladin. President Bush plays Richard the Lion-Heart. (The battle between those two, incidentally, ended in a negotiated settlement, the Peace of Ramia.)
It seems late for anything but war, though Italian, French and Algerian diplomacy still is at work to produce another outcome. There has been, since early this year, a terrible clash of misunderstandings and misinterpreted messages between Iraq and the United States, as Pierre Salinger and Eric Laurent demonstrate in a new book, just out in France, called (in French) ''War in the Gulf: the Secret Dossier.''
The megalomanic Iraqi dictator and the Yankee president, of Puritan cultural antecedence, had mutual incomprehension virtually guaranteed. Actions, of course, speak for themselves. Saddam Hussein's brutal annexation of Kuwait dictated the reaction. After that, maneuvers began, with which the one is in his element, but which the other finds outrageous.
Mr. Bush's offer of an exchange of meetings was possibly the last real chance for an arrangement that could prevent war. The Iraqi president has been a fool to bluff on that. Or does he bluff? Either way, for Americans, it now is Rally 'round the Flag, Boys (and Girls; war having been sexually desegregated -- for which I think we will be sorry).
It is now necessary to think of what we want if we win this war, which is not the extinction of Iraq or its dismantlement. That would never work simply because Iraq is the one state in that area which is also an ancient nation. It has been more or less what it is, under a succession of imperial dynasties -- Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Abbasid, Ottoman -- since civilization began. (Iraq, by the way, is where it began.) Hence, while one might occupy Iraq or even parcel it out to its neighbors, one may be sure that it would eventually re-emerge, looking for trouble.
Certainly no American interest is served by aggrandizing Syrian or Iranian power -- the neighbors who would profit. We need a competent political authority in Iraq, preferably, to be sure, a more accessible and accommodating one than in the past. However in the long term there is no particular reason to think that whatever authority is re-established in Iraq will either be democratic or friendly to the United States. Our minimum interest is that it be a responsible government with which one can rationally deal.
The less the U.S. has directly to do with what is put in place, the better. Any Washington pro-consular project would surely end badly. The best course Washington could follow would be to leave the postwar political reconstruction of Iraq essentially to the Saudis, Egyptians, Moroccans, Syrians, Kuwaitis and Persian Gulf Arabs -- to those who were part of the coalition to defend Kuwait and have earned a right to oversee the outcome.
The U.S. would do well to move rapidly off-scene. Our best role is that of the good policeman who rushed to the scene of the crime, wrested Kuwait from the burglars and sent them off to jail, dusted off the Kuwaiti proprietors and set them up again -- and left.
There is going to be a larger result too. The Palestine-Israel problem has to be addressed. There is simply no way by which this coalition which Mr. Bush has painstakingly assembled will disband without making a genuinely serious attempt to end a conflict that has disrupted the Middle East and poisoned international relations for two generations.
Again, it would seem a prudent American policy to leave the initiative on this to the members of our coalition. The Europeans are ready to assume responsibility. We should also continue to make use of the Security Council mechanisms which have proved so useful to Washington since the beginning of the crisis.
However it requires optimism to speak of happy aftermaths. The scenarios for a military victory providing preface to political catastrophe are much easier to write than those leading to political success. Victory itself will not be simple. Adolf Hitler, an expert in such matters, said, the night before he invaded Russia, ''The beginning of every war is like opening a door into a dark room. One never knows what is hidden in the darkness.''
In these circumstances we should perhaps consider the great year-end feasts of 1990 in their primitive significance, as attempts to pull the world back from the darkness that has been deepening ever since the summer ended. As in pagan antiquity, we must plead for the light to return: Light bonfires! Scan the desert sky, the dawn! Look for the star!