If Lithuania were located over a large pool of oil, it, too, could participate in the New World Order. But geology, not merely geography, is destiny these days, so Lithuania must be content to play the lesser role of a lesson: America, be careful when minting moral imperatives.

The Soviet crackdown on Lithuania could not have come at a less convenient time for the Bush administration. Coming on the eve of what may be the first large war of the post-Cold War reign of perpetual peace, the Soviet action, and the limp U.S. response to it, underscore the moral ambiguity of the U.S. undertaking in the gulf.Moral ambiguity is part of normal political action, but Operation Desert Shield has been justified as a highly moral matter. Now, this has been complicated a bit by the fact that Kuwait has been neither a home of nor a friend of freedom.

President Bush has promiscuously invoked the specter of Hitler, so let us note that Gorbachev is continuing the collaborative work of Hitler and Stalin. The Bush administration is, it is said, inhibited in its response by the need to hold together the anti-Saddam Hussein coalition. This coalition actually needs Gorbachev not at all. He is contributing no troops and can lend no moral weight.

Lately it has been said that war in the gulf is justified in part by the breadth of the anti-Saddam coalition, but that the war cannot be long delayed because this sanctifying coalition is too rickety to stand the strain of waiting to see if sanctions will suffice. Then last Sunday, Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., said this:

"If we rely on sanctions, we could not say anything or do anything about what the Soviet Union is doing in Lithuania, because we (must) try and hold this coalition together. It's going to tie our foreign-policy hands over the year, year-and-a-half, for the sanctions to work. And I think that that means we'd have to be nice to China, even no matter what they did with the dissidents; we'd have to be nice to Syria, no matter what happened in Lebanon; and we're going to have to be nice to the Soviet Union, no matter what they're doing about these republics that want to become independent."

That is, one reason for waging this war of moral duty is so that we can end the demeaning behavior that this moral duty makes necessary.

Bush may be overestimating the menace of Saddam. Bush certainly has overestimated Gorbachev.

Gorbachev no more "set free" Eastern Europe than the United States "gave" full rights to its black citizens. Blacks fought and forced the issue; Eastern Europe's people stood up and gave Gorbachev, by then a mendicant on the West's doorstep, no real choice.

A Czech official says: Place your hand on a globe at San Francisco. Move your hand eastward around most of the Northern Hemisphere, to Vladivostok on the Pacific shore of the Soviet Union. In all the world covered by the passage of your hand, only one leader governs without a direct electoral mandate: Gorbachev, possessor of 10,000 more nuclear weapons than Saddam and coalition partner in the New World Order.