WASHINGTON — Washington. When the Persian Gulf war was barely over, some interviewer asked Norman Schwarzkopf whether he was interested in going into politics. He said he had no such plans.
If General Schwarzkopf is as sophisticated about politics as he is about war, he knows that in Washington code, saying you have no plans is the same as saying ''Make me an offer.''
He gave the world another look at his sophistication, or lack of it, the other night when he sat for an hour-long conversation with David Frost. That show raises a series of questions:
* Why on earth was a field general on active duty exposing himself this way, in a format beyond his control, even before a formal cease-fire? Did he have Washington's approval, or is he so full of his own victorious self that he doesn't deign to ask?
* If Washington okayed his appearance, did it approve what he was going to say? Sensitive negotiations about a cease-fire were still going at the United Nations, and civil war in Iraq; one wrong word could confuse the international situation.
* Does the general contemplate a political career, now that he has reached the peak of any professional military man's ambitions? If so, is he Democrat or Republican? What office might he run for?
The impression here is that General Schwarzkopf had performed so brilliantly on the battlefield and the TV screen that neither Pentagon nor White House felt the need before this week to restrict when he appeared or what he said. He has been a political asset to the president, a major reason why Mr. Bush's own popularity rating has soared during and since the Gulf war.
But if the general plans any further public discussions, he will need to check with Washington first. In a few sentences to Mr. Frost, he became a problem instead of a prize exhibit for the administration. What surprises is not so much what he said, but the near panic with which Pentagon and White House reacted to it.
General Schwarzkopf called the president's decision to halt further offensive operations ''a very courageous decision.'' But, he said, he had recommended marching on, continuing the rout of Saddam Hussein's army.
It is not at all unusual for a general to urge complete victory within the secret councils of war, or for him to be overruled by civilian authority. It is quite unusual for him to say so in public while he is still on the scene, while the details of cease-fire are still being settled.
In speaking out this way, General Schwarzkopf reminds of Douglas MacArthur, who ignored Harry Truman's orders to avoid provoking Chinese intervention by pushing on toward the border of North Korea. Not that the two cases are parallel otherwise: MacArthur defied the president and was sacked, while General Schwarzkopf obeyed the president and was lionized.
Truman's reaction to MacArthur was both strategic and political. While this week's subject is both, Mr. Bush's over-reaction to it is mainly political. The president insisted that the general was wrong in what he said, that he did not object to halting further offensive operations.
What the two parties say is not mutually exclusive. General Schwarzkopf could quite possibly have recommended continuing, but withheld any opposition once he was ordered to halt. That is well within the bounds of what a good general should do. But now, belatedly, the White House and the world are beginning to realize that the coalition forces could have knocked Saddam Hussein out of power and prevented a lot of further trouble.
The fact that Mr. Bush kept that from happening could take some of the shine off the strong image he has enjoyed since the gulf war was so successful. And the suggestion that in the crunch, the commanding general was more macho than the president, must upset Mr. Bush just when he seemed to have buried the old charge that down deep he was a wimp.
Does the general's outspoken interview mean he is heading into politics? It surely reduces his prospects to move higher within the Army. Thus it could prod him into retiring soon -- first to make a few million on the lecture circuit, then perhaps to test his appeal to voters.
Earlier speculation had him challenging Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who is up next year. This week's publicity, and the White House reaction, make some politicians suspect he would prefer Mr. Bush's job. Such things have happened before.
Zachary Taylor, elected president as hero of the Mexican War, had never voted. Dwight Eisenhower's party preference was unknown; Harry Truman offered to step aside if he would take the Democratic nomination.
General Schwarzkopf comes from a Republican military culture, but a New Deal Democratic family. He could go either way. If presidential annoyance forecloses a Republican future, he would look much more convincing in a tank than Michael Dukakis.