The Middle East to emerge from the Persian Gulf war will be shaped by the length, pain and outcome of the war, all of which are in doubt.
The greatest likelihood might be a war of two more months in which Kuwait is liberated and Iraq humiliated, but Saddam Hussein remains in power. In a variant, Mr. Hussein is replaced by a military or Baathist dictatorship not unlike him.
Two other possibilities would be severely negative for U.S. policy goals. In one, Mr. Hussein uses gas on our troops, the U.S. goes for everything and marches into Baghdad. No Arab partners are with us and the Islamic world turns against U.S. ''imperialism.''
In the other, the Iraqi leader declares victory and quits Kuwait next week and the circle of peacemakers congregating in Tehran brokers a truce that leaves him a hero from Marrakech to Karachi.
The best outcome from an American perspective would be an Iraqi overthrow of Mr. Hussein and popular revulsion against his memory that would make the cult of Saddam impossible to sustain outside Iraq.
No matter what outcome, the United States would need to pursue several objectives. One is arms control in the region. Another is defense of Iraq's own territorial integrity. A third is Arab peace with Israel. These are not linked. None is a trade-off for the others. Each should be pursued no matter the stage of the others. But together they add to the real goal, peace and stability for the region.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III gave the administration's first exposition of its policy goals on Wednesday to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
He listed five pillars of a postwar settlement. One is a security agreement for the Persian Gulf to achieve a balance between Iran and Iraq and others. Arms-control agreement by suppliers is a second. Economic reconstruction involving some redistribution of oil wealth within the Arab world is a third. Fourth is an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and fifth is a reduction of U.S. dependence on imported oil.
This war shows as nothing else could the urgent need for arms control in regions and among middling powers. It is a war the weapons made, as was the Iran-Iraq war.
Any power-seeking dictatorship over-armed for its size, population and ability to pay is a menace to its neighbors and its people. And unless the United States takes very great pains to see that this does not happen again, it will happen again.
Saudi Arabia has more arms than it knows how to handle, and is panicked into demanding more. The United States has fed all Middle Eastern appetites, arming Israel to defend itself from the Arabs, and Jordan and Saudi Arabia to defend against Israel.
Iraq's armament and training are basically French and Soviet. Brazil bartered Iraq tanks for oil. German firms created Iraq's scariest weapons. China sold it missiles.
Nations that develop weapons spend so much for research and development they sell all they can on the world market to recoup, sacrificing any momentary weapons advantage for their own forces. This has made the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Britain, China, Sweden, Israel, Czechoslovakia and Brazil leading merchants of death.
When a nation has horrendous budget, trade and payments deficits, as the United States does, arms export is economically the most attractive solution to its problems. So an arms-control regime for the Middle East, as proposed by British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and echoed by Mr. Baker, is both necessary and painful for the U.S. The world's greatest debtor will ask itself to cut back its best export.
The need to protect Iraq's territorial integrity is funny. All the vultures -- the U.S., Turkey, Iran and Syria -- swear they oppose dismemberment. So from whom must we protect Iraq? From freedom-seeking Kurdish secessionists, whom Americans ought to favor. The Kurds have been bullied by Iraqis since Iraq was invented. There are enough Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, the Soviet Union and Syria to make a substantial modern state.
If Iraq is in chaos, Kurdistan will emerge in the oil fields near Mosul and Kirkuk. But Turkey is dead set against an independent Kurdish state which would make claims on Turkish territory and citizens. If Kurdistan arose, Turkey would crush it. And to ward that off, the U.S. is likely to become the leading obstacle to Kurdish self-determination, and to be ashamed of itself.
The Palestinian question, which the demagogue Saddam Hussein co-opted without any record of help to Palestinians, will loom large on the world's list of problems to solve rather than to let fester. If the United Nations Security Council mechanism proves successful in rolling back Iraq's aggression, the great powers will wish to use it on other regional problems.