The question of war in the Middle East seems increasingly to be a matter of when, not if.

If there is anything worse than thousands of young Americans losing their lives in battle, it is losing their lives in vain. The question is not whether American and other United Nations forces can prevail militarily. The question is whether it will be politically possible to gain the lasting peace that is the real prize of a military victory.Already French President Francois Mitterrand is trying to offer a special "deal" to Iraq's Saddam Hussein - a deal that would, in effect, reward the Iraqi dictator for his aggression and associated outrages, including a record for hostage-taking.

France, of all countries, should have learned the lesson of half a century ago, that rewarding aggression means more aggression to follow. Throwing other countries to the wolves just leads to bigger and stronger wolves, coming back for you - just as Hitler came back to get France in 1940, after France threw Czechoslovakia to the wolves in 1938 and Poland in 1939.

International coalitions may be good politics and are sure to be applauded by media pundits. But they limit military effectiveness when what can be done has to be limited to what is acceptable to the lowest common denominator and has to be delayed until a consensus can be reached.

Limited military effectiveness can translate into more young Americans being brought home dead.

We may have been better off without the "help" of Mitterrand and his handful of French troops, if the price to be paid includes his sending mixed signals to Saddam Hussein, especially if the French president also plays the role of prima donna inside the counsels of the United Nations.

The U.N. has already undermined the effectiveness of the naval embargo by making an exception for food and medical supplies. This has been called a "humanitarian" policy. But more people may die as a result of making the embargo ineffective and war the only remaining option. And if we have to maintain a "humanitarian" image during warfare itself, that can cause still more American deaths.

There is nothing humanitarian about war, except to get it over with and establish a lasting peace. That can't be done if Saddam and his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons remain intact in Iraq.

The American media also play a dangerous role that can cause needless bloodshed and needless deaths.

Supposedly reputable newspapers leak information on the number of American troops in the Middle East and supposedly reputable television programs have recklessly second-guessed military operations in Panama and Grenada.

War is not a leisurely seminar or an activity that goes strictly according to plan. It is a desperate scramble to stay alive and do a job, in the midst of a thousand uncertainties. What an obscenity for a big-time TV commentator to arrive on the scene, long after the dangers have passed, and piously interview lawyers who expect to make a bundle suing the U.S. government over stray bullets.

This kind of irresponsible adversary journalism is one of the social degenerations of our time. If World War II had been fought with this constant undermining by the media, Hitler would have won - and neither Mike Wallace nor yours truly would be here to talk about it.

It is bad enough that wars have to be fought. It is worse if our options are limited both by our "allies" and our own media, because that is likely to mean more needless casualties.