THIS TIME last year, who would have predicted that the major crisis facing the United States at the dawn of 1991 would be a military showdown with Iraq, the outcome of which would be in doubt?
The spiraling recession, inextricably tied to the crisis in public and private debt, was certainly expected to be the major national headache at this time. This recession is overdue and the worse for that.
The specter of famine, chaos and Communist counter-revolution in Russia are also not unexpected. Some authorities were predicting these things for last winter, and will claim to have got it right, if off by only one year.
But who would have predicted that the German question would be behind us this Weihnacht, solved by unification following the collapse both of East Germany and of pan-European opposition?
President Bush has his work cut out for the first half of 1991. He must retrieve Kuwait for the Kuwaitis without war. He must bring the recession around before it mushrooms into a crisis of confidence in the American capitalist system. (Just because communism doesn't work, doesn't prove that any old alternative does.)
But those are the known problems. There are position papers, war-gaming and think-tank analyses on how to manage each. What really challenges Mr. Bush are the problems, domestic and foreign, that will command the attention of the country in the second half of the year.
The possibilities include racial strife, border warfare with Mexicoa larger bank crisis than currently imagined, a safety-and-financial crisis imperiling airline transportation, the break-up of Canada, war between Serbia and the rest of Yugoslavia, rearrangements in the Soviet Union putting nuclear weaponry in Russian-nationalist-zealot hands, a Pakistani nuclear explosion, political breakdown in Israel from the twin stresses of intifada and immigration, a new Korean war, an AIDS breakout beyond current projections, grossly increased ozone depletion and so on.
These, being predictable now, are probably not going to happen. Something I could not think up probably will. There are a lot of other Iraqs out there.
If the United States initiates war with Iraq next month, violent demonstrations will wrack this country's campuses and cities. The international alliance will split apart. Thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians will be killed. The war might drag on as neither side intended, with high casualties.
If war is avoided, however, by Iraqi diplomatic success and a failure of American will, the Saddam problem will get worse. Iraq would be a stronger, more dangerous country, fortified by its dictator's supreme confidence in his own infallibility. The next Iraq crisis would then be on a larger scale than the current one with even less attractive options.
But not only would Saddam Hussein see that his methods were vindicated. So would every other middling tyrant, near-nuclear power and possessor of chemical-warfare plant. There would not only be more Iraqs; there would be more Kuwaits.
Of course, one of the distinct possibilities as of this moment ithat Mr. Hussein or his successor will count the odds and back out, restoring Kuwait to the Kuwaitis without war. Tyrants elsewhere would then sheath their weapons, the left-over claims and counter-claims would clog the international court dockets for decades and the U.S. economy, left to its own devices, would start to right itself.
Then this nation could return its attention to reducing the deficit and trying to plug the gaps in American health care and highway bridges. The housing market would revive and Americans would move freely for available jobs again. Learning would advance and the arts would prosper. People would start saying ''Hi!'' again to strangers on the street.
And if all that happens -- and if the as-yet unidentified crisis at the end of the year is not so dire -- George Bush will be elected president again in 1992. (Yes, with the same vice president; did Nixon dump Agnew in '72?). Under this scenario, it does not matter whom the Democrats nominate, and all the talk about Cuomo, Wilder, Gore, Gephardt et al is just blather.
If the Gulf crisis and recession are not dealt with successfully, however, or if the late-year crisis is a bad one, Mr. Bush is not guaranteed re-election. With a war of more than two months' duration or 10,000 American casualties or both, or with a recession that is getting worse rather than better next New Year's, or with something new worse than either of the above, Mr. Bush could emerge as our first one-term president since Jimmy Carter.
If only there were a Democrat around sufficiently large, experienced and untarnished to be offered as a credible alternative! But none is in sight, and only a year remains in which to find one.