First things first in the Middle East, and the first task after the Persian Gulf war is to set that region aright before tackling that most intractable of all international problems, the Israeli-Arab conflict. President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III seem to have set their priorities in this order, and it is the right one.
Both American leaders chose to unleash thunderbolts at the tottering regime of Saddam Hussein as they conferred last week with their partners in the anti-Iraq coalition. Mr. Baker warned Iraq not to use chemical weapons against a rising rebellion in that country, and Mr. Bush followed up by saying the use of helicopter gun ships against rebel forces would violate the cease-fire agreement.
Bluntly put, this implies a continued presence of American forces in southern Iraq until Saddam is overthrown. French President Francois Mitterrand may have let Mr. Bush know he considers this an over-extension of the United Nations mandate, but we doubt this will deter the United States.
What Secretary Baker learned from Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the small gulf states in the anti-Iraq coalition was that they wanted Saddam deposed, that they welcomed a bigger U.S. military role in their region and that they were fed up with an Arafat-led PLO.
Thus, Mr. Baker ended the Persian Gulf phase of his trip much encouraged by the "new thinking" and "new approaches" he had heard. But when the secretary of state got to Israel and Syria, he was soon back in the diplomatic swamps that had trapped so many of his predecessors.
Israeli Premier Yitzhak Shamir was unyielding in refusing to accept, specifically and publicly, what Mr. Bush had called "the principle of territory for peace." Before there could be any discussions of giving up part of the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinian rule or returning control of the Golan Heights to Syria, Israel demanded state-to-state negotiations with Arab states -- without preconditions. Palestinian representatives told the secretary that Mr. Arafat remained their leader. And Syrian President Hafez Assad continued to insist on an international peace conference, an approach unacceptable to Israel and the U.S.
All this was predictable. What caused surprise was Mr. Baker's wise reluctance to put real pressure on either side, preferring to settle for assertions that the gulf war had opened new opportunities.
The need for urgency was routinely mentioned. But what needs the most urgent attention in the Middle East is not the Israeli-Arab question but the devastation of the gulf region wrought by Saddam Hussein. Until a government is installed in Baghdad that is acceptable not only to Saudi Arabia but to Iran and Turkey, the region is condemned to turmoil. As victor in the gulf war, the United States cannot escape its obligation to enforce the peace.