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IT'S NOT EVERY year that begins with a deadline for a shooting war 15 days away. Last Jan. 1, the prospects for a new era of peace were so promising as to almost induce euphoria. Now an army of Americans faces an army of Iraqis across the sands of Arabia, and optimism has been replaced by apprehension.

At home, the economy has hit recession, and hopes for a peace dividend and a balanced budget have died in the Persian Gulf and the savings and loan fiasco.

At the dawn of 1991, Americans find themselves facing not just rumors of war and not just signs of hard times, but the disconcerting combination of both.

But it's quite true that in adversity there is opportunity. To rediscover its optimism amid the challenges of 1991, America needs both luck and intelligent action. More than ever, the nation cannot afford the luxury of acting without thought of the long-term result.

In many ways, America and the world are paying the price for the 1980s. It isn't always a fair one.

The Soviet Union's retreat from war-mongering and adventurism, backed by arms agreements and the withdrawal of its European armies, changed the world profoundly for the better in the 1980s.

But the end of the old standoff also has created what looks like an opportunity to some small-time warlords, notably Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The first attempt at controlling this new kind of threat to peace is now playing itself out as the world tries to force his withdrawal from occupied Kuwait.

President Bush, as de facto leader of the effort, must not fall into old assumptions about the uses of U.S. power; he must not rush too quickly into an American-led war.

The Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq's withdrawal, if it is really little more than a diplomatic threat, may serve its purpose. But the real aim of the policy should be to give the international economic sanctions time to work before giving up on them.

Whichever way the cards fall, this crisis and this year may finally be seen as part of a transition to a world in which the United States is a less dominant player and international structures take on more importance.

The American public may not be sorry. Tired of supporting a global defense, Americans appear ready to turn more attention inward, to creating a healthy, educated population and a set of national strategies for competing in a global economy.

It is in the economic area that the payback for the 1980s is clearest. Americans face the current recession with the nervous feeling not only that this is the bill coming in for the party, but that the full price has not yet revealed itself.

It is not pleasant to think that American business and the U.S. government could not take the long view and invest in the future without disaster looming. But the record of federal deficits and short-term bottom-line planning shows the flush times were not used to best advantage.

Fiscal crisis should prompt better corporate planning. It should also prod a demand from the public for more from government: a downsized and better directed defense, public payrolls less swollen by patronage, more businesslike management of government services.

Business as usual is going to get a shaking up in 1991. If Americans and their leaders are wise, they will turn that to advantage -- at least as much as luck allows.

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