WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III, laying the groundwork for Middle East stability after the Persian Gulf war, is considering pursuing talks between Israel and Arab governments simultaneously with a solution to the Palestinian problem.
In mapping postwar diplomacy, however, Mr. Baker confronts not only the uncertainty of whether Iraq will continue to be led by Saddam Hussein, but also what an administration official says promises to be an even greater regional appetite for arms -- including chemical weapons and missiles.
Officials say the United States' first, and most obvious, task once fighting stops will be securing the peace in the short term, perhaps through an Arab peacekeeping force.
This is also the task most difficult to plan for at the moment.
"It all depends on what the shape of the peace is, and whether the threat from Iraq is no longer there," a U.S. official said.
The United States has disavowed any "targeting" of Mr. Hussein personally and says postwar Iraq will be entitled to secure borders and the means to protect itself.
But some experts and diplomats say that if Mr. Hussein is defeated, he will inevitably fall from power, and perhaps take Iraq's ruling Baath Party down with him.
Even if Mr. Hussein retains control, President Bush has vowed to bring him to justice for war crimes against prisoners of war and foreign hostages. The State and Defense departments, along with Justice, are collecting evidence and plan to consult with coalition partners on the appropriate forum to present it.
Beyond initially securing the Persian Gulf states against renewed Iraqi aggression, the three areas of U.S. postwar planning that have taken the most concrete form are:
* The rebuilding of Kuwait.
* A renewed push for Arab-Israeli peace.
* Curbing weapons proliferation.
Planning for a restoration of Kuwait's infrastructure and citizen identification is well under way with help from U.S. experts.
The latter two areas are more uncertain and are intertwined.
On the peace process, Mr. Baker appears to accept the Israeli view that the plight of Palestinians can't be addressed in a vacuum. Israel opposes trading land in the occupied territories for peace with Palestinians as long as other Arab enemies pose a threat to its pre-1967 borders.
At a meeting last week with U.S. Jewish leaders, Mr. Baker suggested a "two-track" approach of improved relations between Israel and its neighbors and a simultaneous search for a solution to the Palestinian problem, according to Shoshana Cardin, chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
His thinking was signaled in a speech Oct. 12 by Dennis Ross, director of policy planning at the State Department, who is spearheading its
postwar effort together with Undersecretary Robert M. Kimmitt.
"We could envision progress along two interconnected tracks, building the basis for Palestinian-Israeli dialogue while encouraging a gradual relaxation of the tensions which have so long divided Israel and Arab states and so long bred instability in the region," Mr. Ross told the Middle East Institute.
The State Department envisions a virtual U.S.-Soviet partnership this effort.
But Peter Rodman, a Mideast expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, doubts that the Soviets will be useful. "They can't deliver the Syrians and never could," he said.
But he expressed hope that the Egyptians and Saudis would play a leading role in moving toward peace with Israel, as well as in organizing the Palestinians.
Complicating the two-track approach are the temper of the Arab masses once the war ends and the status of the Palestinian leadership.
Israelis hope that the Palestine Liberation Organization will have lost so much prestige as a result of backing the wrong side in the gulf war as to allow other Palestinian leaders to emerge as potential peace partners, but few experts count the PLO out altogether.
An international peace conference appears at this point to be out of the picture, at least in the near term, one U.S. official says.
Administration officials anticipate strong support among producer countries for international curbs on supplies of chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry to the Middle East, with the Iraqi threat fresh in the world's memory.
Controlling arms proliferation at the other end will be much trickier, experts and a U.S. official agree.
"Third World leaders have much in common with members of the National Rifle Association: They both strongly object to efforts by Washington (and other industrial capitals) to tell them what arms they should or should not possess," said Geoffrey Kemp of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"How you control it at the demand end is a much more difficult task," said an administration official involved in developing postwar plans. "This war may demonstrate the utility of missiles and chemical weapons." There may be stronger demand for both from "everybody in the Middle East who ever thinks he has to match what his neighbor has."