WASHINGTON. — Washington -- On the first anniversary of the Gulf War we see that the war triggered a burst of triumphalism that was self-refuting: If that war, in which the United States and a largely rented and potemkin coalition of allies smashed a nation with the GNP of Kentucky, could, as was then said, make America ''feel good about itself,'' then America should not feel good about itself. Twelve months later, it doesn't.
The war, which had many rationales in the run-up to it, seemed, in the aftermath, to have been intended therapeutically. It was supposed to banish ''the Vietnam syndrome,'' meaning doubt about America's ability to project force effectively. It was also supposed to rekindle American confidence, technological and governmental. A tall order for a short war.
The war is the jewel in the crown of President Bush's foreign policy, which is his strong suit. But how strong?
The military performed well in the war. However, it will not do anything similar any time soon. Deficit-driven defense cuts that have al- ready been agreed to, and other cuts coming, are incompatible with such a large, quick operation. Desert Storm was an unrepeatable use of vanishing Cold War capabilities.
The war diplomacy has left lingering anxieties about sovereignty and constitutionality, and about the process and substance of Mr. Bush's foreign policy.
Although the war was a demonstration of U.S. military strength, a lasting political consequence may be weakness, a disabling dilution of U.S. sovereignty. Mr. Bush made U.S. policy subservient to the United Nations at a moment when the U.N. was pleased to be subservient to the United States. But there may come a time when the United States will be held hostage to a Desert Storm legacy, the idea that the legitimacy of U.S. force is directly proportional to the number of nations condoning it.
As Desert Shield began and became Desert Storm, its rationale was given variously as: the defense of Saudi Arabia; or restoration of the Kuwait regime (with the help of our new ally, Syria, which has done to Lebanon approximately what Iraq did to Kuwait); or preservation of the regional balance of power; or preventing the moral equivalent of Hitler (war-crimes trials were hinted) from getting nuclear weapons. Each rationale was better than the impression Mr. Bush gave of improvising rationales.
The war reflected the president's penchant for personalizing foreign policy, in several senses. He believes less in the steady interests of nations than the personal relations between leaders. And he tends to translate his visceral feelings into policies.
In a forthcoming book, ''George Bush's War,'' Jean Edward Smith of the University of Toronto notes how prominent the first person pronoun was in President Bush's exclamations of policy: ''I've had it,'' ''I'm getting increasingly frustrated,'' ''Consider me provoked,'' ''I am more determined than ever before in my life'' and so on. Mr. Smith says, ''It was as if foreign policy had become presidential autobiography.''
Mr. Smith reminds readers how close the president came to unilaterally amending the Constitution by stripping from Congress all right to involvement in the making of war. Mr. Bush only grudgingly (and, he insisted, superfluously) sought constitutional approval for launching one of the largest military operations in U.S. history, an attack on a nation with which we were not at war.
The war displayed Mr. Bush at his best, but it is a problematic best.
He is happiest when dealing with foreign policy because then he is dealing with a few foreign leaders and he does not need to muster the patience and persuasion required in the domestic politics of our turbulent democracy. He has reversed the advice in George Washington's farewell address: He avoids domestic entanglements. His impatience with domestic problems and institutions is the obverse of the pleasure he derives from dealing with the international nomenklatura that conducts the game of nations.
His preference for any established order abroad explains the gray, leaden spirit of Secretary of State Baker's remarks in Belgrade (June 21, 1991) urging preservation of the doomed Yugoslav state. It explains Mr. Bush's Kiev speech, (August 1, 1991) telling Ukrainians, in effect, that their proper future was in a Soviet Union run by Mikhail S. Gorbachev. It explains Mr. Bush's appeasement of his acquaintances (from his ambassadorial days) in China's blood-stained gerontocracy. Mr. Bush's preference for order before freedom is apparent in his neo-mercantilist approval of ''managed'' trade with Japan.
Desert Storm was supposed to serve a new world order, but Mr. Bush has not seriously tried to translate Kuwait's moral debt to America into something truly new -- an Arab democracy. Instead, his itch to tidy up the Middle East has translated into an adversarial relationship between America and the only democracy in the region, Israel.
There is, to say no more, room for argument about foreign policy -- Mr. Bush's strong suit, such as it is -- in the coming campaign.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.