NEW YORK. — The contrast between attention paid the Kurdish crisis here in the United States and in Europe is very striking. Americans are conscious of what war has wrought for the Kurdish and Shiite populations of Iraq, but dread the consequences, hence dread thought about it.
Press and television coverage frames events in terms of highlighting U.S. humanitarian intervention, implicitly soon to be over so as to allow U.S. forces in and around Iraq to come home, victory untarnished.
The European governments have taken the lead in campaigns to rescue the Kurds and Shiites and to prosecute Saddam Hussein. These enjoy wide public support, and are also implied criticisms of the United States for having started a chain of events which, it now is clear, has a long and dangerous way yet to go.
Realism proposes that having said ''A,'' by resorting to war, and having now now been compelled to say ''B'' -- sending U.S. forces back into Iraq -- Mr. Bush is likely eventually to have to say ''C'' and ''D'' too, well and truly involving the United States in the internal affairs of Iraq.
The U.S. Marine Corps' squared-off tent cities rising on Iraqi territory offer no permanent solution to the problems created by the flight of Iraq's Kurds and Shiites from civil war and repression. They are not secure, as accounts of Iraqi police reinforcement of the supposedly demilitarized zones have already demonstrated -- reinforcement by uniformed police; there are many who are not uniformed.
Baghdad also waits for the Americans to go home. Washington wants to go quickly, handing over those camps to an international force and washing its hands of the Kurds. (''A little water clears us of this deed,'' as Lady MacBeth suggested to her husband. It is surprising how many American critics of the war, as well as its supporters, seem content with the idea of building refugee camps and leaving it at that.)
It can't end in camps. The Kurds' war would go on from inside the camps, and Saddam Hussein's repression from the outside. This is a dynamic situation. The United Nations cannot secure these places unless the United States and its closest allies are prepared to furnish military guarantees of the arrangement, which implies something scarcely distinguishable from military occupation of the secured regions.
The Kurds want ''permanent'' U.S. protection or Saddam Hussein dead, neither of which is part of Mr. Bush's current plan, but for which there may prove to be no alternative. Americans have to be clear about this. Simply feeding displaced Kurds in a new Gaza strip is probably politically unfeasible and certainly is morally unacceptable, indeed criminal, as the outcome to a war which included appeals to the Iraqi people to rise against Saddam Hussein. There must be a solution which allows the Kurds to re-establish their homes and lives under tolerable conditions.
The government in Baghdad currently is negotiating with Kurdish leaders for a settlement based on a 1970 agreement for Kurdish autonomy that never was put into practice because the Kurds -- at the time armed and backed by the United States and the Shah's Iran -- thought they could get still more. Their allies subsequently betrayed them, so they got nothing. (Hence the severity with which they question whether today's American good will may tomorrow be replaced by American indifference, political and media attention displaced onto something new.)
A revival of that 1970 plan might prove possible. It is to be preferred to the imposed partition of Iraq with creation of an independent Kurdistan, which the Kurds want and which is logically implicit in the situation today. That is a prospect Turkey and the other states with Kurdish minorities fear, for evident reasons.
Application of the 1970 agreement, however, would itself have to be guaranteed by the international community. The United States will be lucky if it gets off with no more than that as lasting commitment. Hence its interest in supporting the negotiations begun in Baghdad.
Otherwise the protected zones now being set up by U.S. and allied forces will have to be secured and policed indefinitely, against the hostility not only of the Ba'ath government of Iraq, with its militia and secret police, but that of the Sunni population of Iraq generally.
The refugees would rot, just another displaced people, victims of ancestral hatred, of the despot's cruelty and ambition and, in the Kurds' case, of their own leaders' overreaching. Victims too of those Western good intentions which have done so much harm in the world during the 20 century. That is why the United States has an obligation it must not evade.
William Pfaff is a syndicted columnist.