WASHINGTON. — Washington Looking back 5 1/2 months, it is tempting to play the game of what might have been.
We might have ignored the invasion of Kuwait, or merely wrung our hands as we did over the invasions of Afghanistan, Chad, Iran, Cambodia and various other subdivisions of the Third World in the past few years.
But the Persian Gulf is more important to our economy, and especially to that of our First World allies. Thus we might have reacted with more than hand-wringing -- by raising hell diplomatically, joining in a boycott of Iraqi goods, even sending ships to enforce an embargo. We might have gone so far as encouraging Iraq's Arab neighbors to band together to throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait -- with major backing from Japan and Germany, of course, plus the other nations that depend on Gulf oil.
In extremis, we might have offered to provide American forces to a United Nations expeditionary command -- in strict proportion to our stake in Persian Gulf, and on the condition that others took part on the same basis.
Any combination of these responses would have upheld our national honor and our economic interest. While the U.N. dealt with Mr. Hussein, the United States could have dealt with other more vital matters, closer at hand.
Instead, the Persian Gulf crisis was made a two-way showdown between this country and Iraq -- and, more than any such confrontation since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, a contest of machismo between two men. Even then, when John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were eyeball to eyeball, there was no name-calling; both leaders were wise enough not to make the issue more intractable by making it more personal. Each left the other some room to maneuver, and there was no war.
This time, the confrontation has been so personalized that neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Hussein seems able to deal without losing face. The threat of political embarrassment seems trivial compared to the threat of thousands of deaths, but it has brought on wars throughout history. Our side has demanded total backdown by Iraq in much the way our side demanded unconditional surrender in World War II. Historians see now that that demand prolonged the war and cost many more lives.
If today's crisis were in proper perspective, Washington would be free to respond more forcefully to the brutal suppression of Lithuanian independence by Soviet troops. In his delicate situation, Mikhail Gorbachev should still be courting the West with political concessions to gain economic aid. Instead our president must speak softly to him, lest the Soviet leader pull out of the coalition considered so necessary against Iraq.
If this crisis were in proper perspective, Washington could deal more energetically with the recession that is throwing so many Americans out of work. Some of the billions spent on deploying for and perhaps fighting a Middle East war could be devoted to education, to the homeless, to road and bridges, to the long list of problems that allegedly we cannot afford to fix.
Instead we are out on a limb 9,000 miles long. At first, our president was out there by himself. Then he ordered hundreds of thousands of our countrymen out there with him. Because they were there, our Congress reluctantly voted to join them. That puts us all out there.
One by one, legislators who voted last weekend to give the president authority to go to war made clear that they were doing so because they did not want to let down the president in a crisis. Some said it was not the president so much as our troops in the field who needed congressional support. There was very little bellicose rhetoric of the kind we heard in the early, formative stage of this situation.
Even most of those who voted ''against the president'' -- i.e., those who wanted to give the sanctions against Iraq more time to work, who wanted to postpone war until every possible alternative had been tried -- emphasized that once the decision was made, they would back the U.S. effort.
Those legislators expressed my own attitude, and that of many who believe America did not have to get itself into a bind where war is the only honorable and available option. To be honest, it seems necessary to get all this off our chest. We believe the situation could have been handled much more skillfully. We regret that our troops are in the desert, on the brink of war.
But there they are, and the moment the first shot is fired, we are there with them.