THE SOVIET Union's intrusion into the war in the Persian Gulf is a warning to President Bush that winning the peace may be as demanding in its way as winning the war.
There is no mystery about the reasons Mikhail Gorbachev, after playing only a nominal role in the coalition to liberate Kuwait, suddenly has put forward a peace plan that can make it much more difficult for the United States to bring the war to an end under the kind of terms Bush has been seeking all along. The Soviets are clearly trying to make Iraq a client state in the Middle East even if that involves leaving Saddam Hussein in power.
But the Soviet Union is not the only important player either in the denouement of the war or in efforts to shape the Middle East after the shooting ends. As a result, Bush can look forward to months of tricky negotiations with others with conflicting -- and sometimes mutually exclusive -- agendas of their own.
The basic conflict, of course, is the one between the United States on the one hand and those who agree with the Soviet Union -- perhaps including the Italians, French and Germans -- that leaving Saddam Hussein in place is a tolerable price to pay to get him out of Kuwait and stop the bombing or a ground war.
Bush has made it plain that the bare minimum the United States could accept would be a Saddam Hussein so personally discredited and so crippled militarily that Kuwait would not only be liberated but secure and that Saudi Arabia would be similarly protected. Those are goals shared by the British and the Israelis and perhaps the Egyptians as well as the Saudis and Kuwaitis.
It should not be overlooked, nonetheless, that such a situation is a minimum rather than the president's increasingly obvious purpose of not only destroying the Iraqi military but seeing that Saddam Hussein is removed from power either by the Iraqis themselves or by the military victors. That is a purpose that is obviously shared by at least the Israelis and British.
There are many other players with varying priorities. Turkey has been more supportive of the coalition than originally expected, but most Turks are Muslims and that can make it difficult for the Turkish leadership to take the hardest line against Saddam.
Then there is Syria, whose motives in supporting the coalition have always been suspect despite the long-held Syrian antipathy toward Iraq. It is clear that if Iraq's military force is destroyed, Syria will hold the military high cards in the region. But the Syrians cannot risk being alienated from the Arab world.
And there are the Chinese, who have held themselves aloof from the war but have been increasingly critical of the U.S. role. Deng Xiaoping was quoted the other day as describing the war as a case of "big hegemonists beating up small hegemonists" -- thus showing a concern for the niceties that was not apparent when the Chinese leaders ordered troops to shoot down their own young people in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. The Chinese concern ostensibly centers on the possibility of expanded U.S. influence, but it shouldn't be forgotten that Iraq was a good customer for Chinese arms sales.
Some of the partners in the coalition -- the Saudis and British most notably -- are obviously entitled to more of a voice than others in the final solution in the Persian Gulf because of their contributions. The same would be true of the Israelis, whose restraint has kept the conflict far more limited than it might have been considering the stakes for which it plays every day.
But the Israelis also must face the reality that there will be intense international pressure for a Middle East conference on the Palestinians even if the United States and its allies are unwilling to promise one as a concession to Saddam. It would probably be equally realistic for them to expect the Soviets to be a player at such a conference even if the Gorbachev plan fails to end the fighting.
All of these questions seem remote right now when it is so far from plain how the war itself will play out. Once the fighting ends and U.S. troops are no longer in harm's way, Americans can be expected to be far less interested in the Middle East than in the unemployment statistics at home.
But the president will not have the luxury of putting the Middle East behind him after the shooting stops. Success in the war seems imminent, but success in reaching the goals for which the war has been fought will take time and patience.