PARIS -- Saddam Hussein's latest exercise in provocation again raises the problem of Washington's preoccupation with ''rogue states.''
''Standing up'' to these easily condemnable enemies is self-satisfying but does not accomplish much. President Saddam has outlasted George Bush and is likely to outlast President Clinton. In his last defiance of Mr. Clinton, in 1996, his troops moved into Iraqi Kurdistan to overrun a costly CIA operation. The United States launched some missiles in retaliation, to no practical effect.
Moralizing politics is an American tradition. A hundred years ago Papist imperial Spain was the enemy. An enlightened and proudly progressive United States invaded Cuba and seized the Philippines to save them from Spain's oppression.
It then overturned the independent Filipino republic (possessing the first liberal constitution in Asia) which the Filipino liberation movement had set up, and in the next two years spent more money and lives than in the Spanish-American War itself in order to put down the Filipinos' rebellion against American colonialism.
As for Cuba, it was compelled to incorporate into its constitution a right by the United States to intervene in Cuban internal affairs. This lasted until 1934. I mention this history to note that all these things are relative.
World War II gave the moralizing approach to international relations a new dimension, since Nazism and Stalinism made into reality what previously had been literally unimaginable in the conduct of nations. Conflict with dictators since then has tended to be assimilated to that history, so that George Bush condemned Saddam Hussein not as a brutal dictator but as ''the new Hitler.''
All this makes it hard to disengage from ''rogue nations'' even when the engagement has become futile. Blockades and embargoes of the rogue states have served mostly to make ordinary people in those nations suffer while the dictators themselves, their families, and their security forces feast and gambol as they please.
Mr. Saddam has demonstrated his capacity for getting what he wants, at the expense of his people. The mullahs in Iran, and the indefatigable Fidel Castro, have probably drawn net profit from Washington's enmity.
The situation is further complicated by electoral politics in the United States. The Cuban lobby, some of whose leaders seem to envisage an eventual personal takeover of Cuba, has manipulated Congress and presidential candidates for many years. The Israeli lobby has a lively interest in the existence and notoriety of rogue states because without them U.S. public support for Israel might fade.
What purpose has been served by 20 years of hostility to Iran? It is revenge for a humiliation of the United States, itself provoked by more than 30 previous years of gross American interference in Iran's affairs.
As for the sponsorship of terrorism, it is the weapon of the weak. The young Islamic fanatics now loose in the world, bearing Kalishnikovs and stocks of plastic explosive, are likely to have learned their trade in Afghanistan under CIA sponsorship.
The distinguished military historian Sir Michael Howard recently wrote about the information now available from Soviet documents on what really went on in the Cold War. We now know (indeed, the well-informed then knew, but were discouraged from saying) that the Soviet economy was collapsing from the mid-1960s forward. The former Soviet Union's sole asset was a nuclear missile force which had no deterrent utility, since the West was not going to attack, and no offensive value against an overarmed West.
Sir Michael asks, ''What if the United States in the 1970s and 1980s had played into Soviet weakness rather than Soviet strength; maintained a credible minimal deterrent, ignored the Soviet show of unusable nuclear strength and, in effect, called the Soviet bluff?''
The hypothetical question is unanswerable, but as he adds, ''American public opinion, whipped up by whichever party was in opposition, would probably have rendered any such policy out of the question.''
That, I am afraid, is also why America's campaigns against the rogue states will go on, however futile they may be. Political Washington needs the rogue states, while they, on the whole, have done rather well from Washington's attentions.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 11/06/97