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A CLASSIC ERROR of nations is to respond to a new threat in terms of the experience of the last war. In our case, the last war is the Cold War, and the crisis in the Persian Gulf is not part of it, but something new.

President Bush, our military leaders and an assortment of influential hawks are reacting to the actions of Iraq as they would have to a superpower confrontation like the building of the Berlin wall or the Cuban missile crisis. But in this regional crisis without superpower overtones, to apply the same old principles is to miss the point.

The situation demands a kind of new thinking that both the U.S. leadership and the leaders of other nations are having trouble achieving with any consistency.

At home, Bush seems to have swung back and forth between talking of a new world of collective security arrangements, in which nations work together in a broad coalitions against threats to peace, and acting unilaterally with U.S. military might.

Abroad, world leaders are hanging back and letting the United States assume the leadership and take the risks in what is supposed to be -- and should be -- a global response. In failing to assume more responsibility, they, too, are missing the point.

In his better moments during this crisis, Bush has contributed greatly to the idea of joint international action against aggressors. His diplomacy achieved remarkable results in organizing the U.N. sanctions and then U.N. approval of military action, even though he had to throw in a few sweeteners to get the desired results -- loan write-offs for Egypt, a $50 million loan for China.

Bush has said that he foresees a new world order, based on joint action to keep the peace, emerging from this crisis.

But as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan told editors of The Buffalo News in a meeting last week, "If we just roll over everybody now, it's the end of collective security arrangements." The new world order won't happen if the United States falls into its old dominant pattern and impatiently rushes to defeat Saddam Hussein with its military muscle.

In his role as commander-in-chief, the president is claiming the power to take any military action in the crisis, taking the nation close to war in the style of the brinkmanship of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in the 1950s.

And in the style of Cold War hyperbole, the administration is portraying Iraq's leader as a threat to the American way of life, even though there are no major American interests involved in this dispute.

Some of the president's inconsistency -- and the world's -- is natural. The vision of resolving conflicts and punishing malefactors through a revived United Nations, no longer captive to the old U.S.-Soviet standoff, is new. The nations are feeling their way in unfamiliar territory.

Moynihan has pointed out that sanctions are not part of the old Cold War strategy. They are part of the tentatively emerging strategy of the United Nations. Leaders caught up in the old thinking cannot accept their validity. But unfamiliar as they are, they are a valid method of persuasion, and the patience to wait for them to work is valid, too.

If the current coalition succeeds in making Saddam Hussein give up Kuwait, Bush will have stopped aggression and contributed to U.N. prestige, even though the operation is more an American than a U.N. one.

But if this high-stakes gamble in the gulf turns out badly and thousands of American lives are lost, or if the world perceives that it is witnessing an American war against the Arab nations, the trend toward international peace-keeping will be set back.

Eventually, the world community must share in all phases of handling threats to peace -- in the decision-making, the monetary cost and the dying. That is the goal we must not lose sight of in this first post-Cold-War crisis. Instead of U.N. approval of U.S. operations, we look forward someday to seeing U.S. approval of U.N. operations.

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