WASHINGTON — THIS FAD of second-guessing the Persian Gulf war misses the point. We got exactly what we went in for: an assured supply of cheap oil, at least for a while; renewed respect for our military muscle, and the dismantling of the biggest offensive threat in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, expectations had been inflated far beyond such reasonable goals. When President Bush belatedly got around to selling the war to his own country -- after doing a superb job of selling it to the rest of the world -- he made the usual mistake of overkill. He spoke of ending aggression for all time, a new world order with the U.S. as high sheriff, spreading democracy and ridding mankind of a second Hitler.
None of that was attainable as he should, but may not, have known. It would have been possible to march into Baghdad and behead Saddam Hussein, but at what cost? We'd have had to take over and run a nation with more problems than our own. Better to let the Iraqis duke it out, not that whoever wins will be much of an improvement.
Nor are the kings, emirs, sheiks and other gentry of those gulf regimes about to give up any of the goodies their oil showers upon them. They know a free electorate would crimp them, so they tolerate only impotent tokens of democracy. To expect this to change out of gratitude for our excising their Saddam threat is naive.
Aside from clipping Saddam's wings, the war changed only the theatrics of the Middle East. The old hatreds, fears and enormous gaps in income -- among citizens as well as states -- endure.
President Bush may use the victory celebration as a launching pad for a regional conference on the mother of all Mideastern problems -- the Arab-Israeli conflict and its Palestinian offshoot.
It will get nowhere, however, unless we're willing to draw blood from both sides. Richard Murphy, assistant secretary of state for the Middle East under Reagan, gave a useful formula in a Washington Post piece last week: Ask the Arabs to say unequivocally that they will negotiate normalization of relations with Israel once the Palestinian issue is resolved.
Then it would be up to us to persuade the Israelis to get realistic about a settlement. This will be no easy sale, as witness the new "shoot-to-kill" orders given the army in policing Palestinian areas.
We're not without leverage, however. Israel depends upon us for much of her financing and armor. The gulf states have just learned they need us to keep their skins intact. Egypt is kept afloat with our financial aid.
If Bush and Secretary of State Jim Baker are ready to take both sides to the mat, this could be a historic opportunity to move toward the peace that has eluded all comers for 45 years. Chances are they'll flunk it. Despite his gung-ho image from his gulf adventure, Bush hates confrontation and invariably hunts a way around it.
We seem destined to blow another key opportunity as well. The war bought us time to develop a comprehensive energy policy and end our dependence on imported oil. That way we wouldn't have to go to war every time some two-bit hoodlum threatens to gain control of major oil reserves.
Bush already has made clear he's interested only in business as usual. Congress is unlikely to take him on while he wears his gulf halo. Pity.