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The Need to Think Now About a Postwar Mideast

A ceasing of military hostilities in the Persian Gulf should not blind America or its president to the major diplomatic needs that lie ahead.

SO, we are now well into the war against Saddam Hussein. On the battlefield, only two outcomes are now possible. Either the American-led alliance will win a fairly quick, fairly decisive victory. (How we will measure a victory is a very good but as yet quite unanswered question.) Or, Saddam could still hold us to a messy and destructive draw. Either way, President Bush will need every ounce of diplomatic savvy he can muster to deal with the crucial days after the guns fall silent.

Mr. Bush probably knows that if he fails to win a swift and clean victory, the need for diplomacy will be even more acute. He will have to move adroitly to minimize the recrimination of those, both at home and abroad, who would have preferred more consultation, more reliance on diplomacy, before taking us into this massive confrontation.

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Now that we are in this war, my feeling is that it is best if it finishes quickly, with as decisive an allied victory as possible. The implications of a messy outcome, both for Americans and for all the people of the Middle East are horrible to think of.

But a decisive victory carries its own risks, too. The most destructive of these would be hubris - the old word the Greeks used for anyone who forgot his or her own mortality.

Has Mr. Bush thought much about Menachem Begin recently? Mr. Begin, you remember, was the man who after decades in the political wilderness, led his Likud faction to power in Israel in 1977. He then led his country into the 1978 Camp David peace accords with Egypt, then in 1981 was reelected with an even stronger margin.

One year later, persuaded by his tough-guy Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Begin took his country into a massive war against Palestinian and Syrian forces in Lebanon.

Well, the 1982 campaign was successful, from the strictly military point of view. The Israeli forces forced the evacuation of the Palestinian fighters from Beirut. They knocked out Syria's air defenses, and Syria slunk away from further battle. A newly elected Lebanese president promised to make peace on the Israeli's terms.

By 1985, those gains all lay in shreds. The Israelis, having suffered 1,200 dead and suffering the near-ruination of their economy, voluntarily pulled back to the very same lines they started from in 1982. Palestinian activism had sprouted afresh in the occupied territories. The Syrians were better armed than ever. And the Lebanese President now turned to Syria, not Israel, for protection and security.

And Menachem Begin, the doughty survivor who had led his people into this no-win war? He resigned abruptly from public life in fall 1983. Friends reported that he felt broken not only by the death of his wife, but also by the tragedy that had played out in Lebanon.

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Why had Mr. Begin's government allowed its military victory in Lebanon to degenerate into such a political fiasco? A large part was played by the Greeks' old friend, hubris. Begin and his commanders seemed to think that their battlefield victory would allow them to dictate terms in Lebanon, without any give and take.

I hope that, if the alliance forces prevail against Saddam Hussein, Bush will not let himself fall prey to a similar sense of hubris.

If he wins on the battlefield, then enormous challenges will remain at the political level. They will need to be addressed with all the determination, graciousness, and expertise that he can muster.

The challenges are many and complex: Challenges like building a stable order in the Gulf. Challenges like bringing Mideastern states and peoples speedily into a process of political reconciliation. Challenges like building fair regimes for arms control, disarmament, and economic development throughout the Mideast region.

Bush has shown that he is sensitive to at least some of the issues involved in these political tasks. But a personal sensitivity will not be enough.

Just as he delegated that planning of the military campaign to military experts, Bush needs to harness all the nation's expertise on Mideast political affairs to the crucial task of post-crisis planning.

But regional expertise seems to have been completely locked out of the administration's high-level planning. Neither of the top two people in the chain of command who are currently responsible for Mideast diplomacy has any long expertise in the affairs of the region.

At the moment, that fact is perhaps merely regrettable. But the minute this confrontation turns from the military to the political phase, the lack of American political planning and expertise could threaten the success of the whole venture.

Because as Menachem Begin could perhaps tell Mr. Bush, in the Middle East battlefield victories count for little. It is the diplomacy that follows that can make or break the victory.

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