WASHINGTON — Washington. SADDAM HUSSEIN is no Hitler, but Tariq Aziz is a Goebbels. Mr. Hussein, having no racial or other world view, only ambition, wants to live to fight another day, not die in a bunker. But Mr. Aziz, by his big lie (Kuwait? What Kuwait? Iraq cares only for Palestinians), conceivably foreshadowed an outcome of this crisis short of war:
Iraq might withdraw from Kuwait with a patina of dignity provided by intimations of the obvious willingness of the ''world community'' to sacrifice America's only real ally in the region, Israel. The Bush administration may be in no position -- or mood -- to offer much resistance to that.
A dark harvest of headlines -- soaring budget deficit, bank failures, Bonapartism in Moscow -- color a mood in Washington more anxious than at any time since the Watergate summer of 1974.
The federal deficit, supposedly banished from polite conversation for five years by October's budget deal, is burgeoning. The new deficit projection is alarming but optimistic. It is that this year's deficit will be $50 billion higher (substantially more than October's deal purported to cut from the deficit) than projected the last time the projection was revised upward. Allowing for proper accounting of the Social Security surplus ($66 billion) and other trust funds, the deficit will reach $400 billion. And the assumptions behind the additional $50 billion projection include recovery by the third quarter, and net positive growth for the year.
Furthermore, there is a chance of serious convulsions in the financial system. More Northeastern banks are in jeopardy, and some regional banks are vulnerable because of declining real-estate markets in California and Florida.
The continuing overhang of assets from the S&L liquidations, which are behind schedule, make $425 billion deficits likely this year and next. Now, suppose there is a war, and it lasts not weeks but months, costing $2 billion a day while (in the words of Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma) our competitors, Germany and Japan, whose interests we are protecting, sit on the sidelines smiling.
The November 8 decision to nearly double the American troop commitment sealed the shift away from the policy of punitive deterrence (sanctions plus protection of Saudi Arabia). The deployment then reached a critical mass and became the policy: Poised in an inhospitable desert, the forces must be used soon or readiness will decline from a precarious peak.
Furthermore, while President Bush was establishing a dangerous precedent, arguing that U.S. foreign-policy goals acquire special almost seemed to say indispensable) legitimacy from U.N. approval, U.S. goals went way beyond those of the United Nations. They now encompass radical reduction of Iraq's arsenal and even, by implication, destruction of Mr. Hussein's regime.
Since November 8, it has been probable that Israel will be made to pay for war or the avoidance of it.
If war comes, the thin veneer of the ''coalition'' will not disguise the fact that it is the United States waging war against an Arab nation, with radicalizing and destabilizing effects throughout the Arab world. The price for readmission of the United States into the good graces, such as they are, of Arab nations will be an international conference. The purpose of the conference will be to coerce Israel into perhaps terminal vulnerability.
If war is avoided, it will be because Arab nations have endorsed the fiction that Iraq's aggression was altruism on behalf of Palestinians. The crisis will then turn on the hinge of the Arab constant -- hostility to Israel, America's only constant ally in the region.
Last Sunday on television, Secretary Baker denied that the United States had recently voted for a U.N. resolution that characterized the West Bank and Jerusalem -- Israel's capital -- as ''Palestinian'' lands. Said Mr. Baker: ''No, we didn't vote that it constituted Palestinian lands. . . . Not 'Palestinian' lands.''
In fact, the resolution pronounces the United Nations ''gravely concerned about the deterioration of the situation in all the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem.'' It was the second time in two years that the United States had voted for such language, which is a historical and legal lie.
Come war, come peace, that lie may be the foundation of future policy -- an odd foundation on which to erect that moral enterprise, the New World Order. But the crisis that began with the United States unfurling a banner proclaiming ''No Munich!'' may end with a Munich, an international conference to carve up an inconvenient democracy.