WASHINGTON. — If Lithuania were located over a large pool of oil, it, too, could participate in the New World Order. But geology, not merely geography, is destiny these days, so Lithuania must be content to play the lesser role of a lesson: America, be careful when minting moral imperatives.
The Soviet crackdown on Lithuania could not have come at a less convenient time for the Bush administration. Coming on the eve of what may be the first large war of the post-Cold War reign of perpetual peace, the Soviet action, and the limp U.S. response to it, underscore the moral ambiguity of the U.S. undertaking in the Gulf.
Moral ambiguity is part of normal political action, but Operation Desert Shield has been justified as a highly moral matter. Now, this has been complicated a bit by the fact that Kuwait has been neither a home of nor a friend of freedom. (Senator, formerly U.N. ambassador, Daniel P. Moynihan: ''I remember Kuwait at the United Nations as a particularly poisonous enemy of the United States. One can be an antagonist of the United States in a way that leaves room for further discussion afterward. But the Kuwaitis were singularly nasty. Their anti-Semitism was at the level of the personally loathsome. . . .'')
Kuwait, unlike Lithuania, can afford to spend -- and needs to spend -- millions on public-relations sorcery. But Kuwait certainly is a victim of aggression. Lithuania is this minute also a victim of aggression. And Lithuania, unlike Kuwait, is a fledgling democracy. Mikhail Gorbachev says he had nothing much to do with it, that a local Army commander made the decision to liquidate democracy there, and Mr. Gorbachev's sudden re-regimented media say the commander was right to take the ''defensive'' measures.
The Bush administration is, it is said, inhibited in its response by the need to hold together the anti-Saddam coalition. This coalition -- so many nations willing to hold America's coat -- actually doesn't need Mr. Gorbachev. He is contributing no troops and can lend no moral weight.
Lately it has been said that war in the Gulf is justified in part by the breadth of the anti-Saddam coalition, but that the war cannot be long delayed because this sanctifying coalition is too rickety to stand the strain of waiting to see if sanctions will suffice. Then last Sunday, Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., said this:
''If we rely on sanctions, we could not say anything or do anything about what the Soviet Union is doing in Lithuania, because we (must) try and hold this coalition together. It's going to tie our foreign-policy hands over the year, year-and-a-half, for the sanctions to work. And I think that that means we'd have to be nice to China, even no matter what they did with the dissidents; we'd have to be nice to Syria, no matter what happened in Lebanon; and we're going to have to be nice to the Soviet Union, no matter what they're doing about these republics that want to become independent.''
That is, one reason for waging this war of moral duty is so that we can end the demeaning behavior that this moral duty makes necessary.
Mr. Bush may be overestimating the menace of Saddam Hussein. Mr. Bush certainly has overestimated Mr. Gorbachev, the most overrated man of the 20th century, and Mr. Bush is not alone. The Economist says: ''The courage it took to set Eastern Europe free seems to have deserted him.'' Note the small word ''set.'' It carries a huge and dangerous misreading of history.
Mr. Gorbachev no more ''set free'' Eastern Europe than the United States ''gave'' full rights to its black citizens. Blacks fought and forced the issue; Eastern Europe's people stood up and gave Mr. Gorbachev, by then a mendicant on the West's doorstep, no real choice.
Many months ago, Mr. Gorbachev made the characteristically grand -- and empty -- promise that within 500 days he would do what he has done nothing much about for six years. He would radically reform institutional impediments to freedom. Yet still he holds back. Why? For the same reason he denounces Lithuanian patriots as ''bourgeois'' elements and speaks of preserving the Soviet Union's ''socialist choice.'' That choice was made 73 years ago by the entity that Mr. Gorbachev still heads, the Communist Party.
A Czech official says: Place your hand on a globe at San Francisco. Move your hand eastward around most of the Northern Hemisphere, to Vladivostok on the Pacific shore of the Soviet Union. In all the world covered by the passage of your hand, only one leader governs without a direct electoral mandate: Mikhail Gorbachev, possessor of 10,000 more nuclear weapons than Saddam Hussein, and coalition partner in the New World Order.