LONDON. — London -- Public opinion does count. The arch-practitioner of Realpolitik, George Bush, has been compelled to intervene to save the Kurds. It goes against his every instinct. As he announced his decision, he again spoke of his personal bete noire, the ''quagmire of Vietnam.'' This intervention wouldn't lead to one, he said, even though his advisers had been confiding for days that this concern was what stayed his hand.
It probably won't be like Vietnam. History doesn't repeat itself so neatly.
One thing is the same for Mr. Bush as it was for Presidents Johnson and Nixon: All were defeated by the power of the media. The media that the president and the Pentagon so successfully muzzled during ''Desert Storm'' have in the aftermath been allowed to do their job untrammeled. And their heart-rending reports from the Iranian and Turkish mountains found an audience, particularly among the fairer sex.
Women, reported the opinion polls in the U.S., Britain and France, were never as keen as men on the war. And now they've been making their views clear over the plight of the Kurds. Danielle Mitterand and Norma Major have bent their husbands' ears. Even Margaret Thatcher, dropping her traditional sang-froid, has reverted to gender and demanded that something be done. We may not know yet what Barbara Bush has said, but we can make a shrewd guess.
What next? Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf told us how easy it was to win the war. Overwhelming air power, a formidable ground assault, a feint here and a pincer there and it was over. It is doubtful that he or anyone else has as sure a scenario for the Kurdish problem. Feeding the refugees, even returning the Kurds, if they want to return, to the villages and towns may not be too difficult, given the chastening of Saddam Hussein and the renewed threat of superior force.
What then? Is the Kurdish problem to become, like the Palestinian one, an oozing boil continuously poisoning the Middle East? The temporary has a nasty habit of becoming permanent, and the solutions that look sensible and obvious one day vanish the next.
Before World War I there was no Palestinian problem. Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, its population 90 percent Arab. After Turkish rule collapsed, problems began to percolate to the surface. To defeat the Turks, the British had encouraged an Arab revolt on the promise of Arab independence, including Palestine. To win world Jewish support in the war against Germany, the British promised in the Balfour Declaration ''a national home for the Jewish people.''
Prime Minister Balfour, of course, never anticipated Adolf Hitler and the massive exodus of European Jews to Palestine. In 1917, at the time of the Declaration, the Jews were only 8 per cent of the total Palestinian population. By 1939, they were 30 per cent and growing fast. The rest of the story everyone knows.
How do the allies and the U.N. encourage the Kurds to return home and stay home? Less than pleasant it might be in a Turkish or Iranian refugee camp, but at least one's family isn't going to be butchered. Why return home if the allies are to stay only a month or two? Once they've gone Mr. Hussein might start his final pogrom. In short, the Kurds are going to ask, like the Palestinians and Jews before them, for promises and commitments.
So far they've only asked for autonomy, but their present sense of insecurity could convince them that the time has come to ask for nothing less than independence, and independence not just for Iraqi Kurds but for those of Iran, Turkey and Syria too.
Before long, Messrs. Bush, Major and Mitterand are going to wish they'd listened to Richard Nixon and ''taken a contract out'' pTC on Mr. Hussein's life.
How to get out of this one? There's no easy answer. This is the consequence of sending in half a million soldiers to drive Iraq out of Kuwait by force, rather than relying on the steady but less unsettling attrition of total sanctions.
The only saving grace is that, unlike the decades of dealing with Israel and the Palestinians, we now have a strong, united and potentially effective United Nations. A U.N.-secured autonomous region for the Kurds of Iraq could work -- if the U.N. force were strong enough, and the hand of the Security Council steady enough.
It would demand an enormous commitment of resources and manpower, at least initially until Mr. Hussein perceives the U.N. is serious. The American, French and British military units should be formally internationalized under the direct authority of the U.N. Security Council, and half their numbers should be quickly replaced by soldiers from the traditional U.N. peacekeeping nations -- Canada, India, Sweden, Nigeria and Poland, together with contingents from representative Muslim nations and, not least, from the Soviet Union.
It is a different way of running the world than we are used to. It is the way it increasingly must go. Not just in Iraq this week, but next in Cambodia, Liberia, El Salvador. But that's right, isn't it, Eleanor Roosevelt?
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.