The Middle East holds many mysteries, such as who is going to run Iraq after Saddam has gone to be with the worms. As of now, nobody seems to know what's going to happen or even what should happen. What better time for a pundit to step forward and lay down the law?

The first order of business will be to settle the Saddam question. Some people have held out hope that he could be severely weakened, then allowed to return to Iraq to prevent a power grab by other members of the so-called Arab brotherhood. This always sounded like an unlikely plan, in that returning the current Adolf Hitler to power, even a reduced power, would be hard to justify, even by so accomplished a rhetorical swordsman as President Bush.But the president needn't worry about this any more. Saddam took himself out of the running for a future leadership position when he became a war criminal. His treatment of American and allied fliers sealed his fate - if that had not previously been accomplished by his rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. Nor did he build much sympathy by dumping all that oil in the gulf. The public will no doubt demand that we round up Saddam and his cronies and allow them to reap what they have sown - under controlled conditions, of course.

It will no doubt be determined that hanging is too good for Saddam, and talk will turn to solutions that feature hot pokers, ant hills and other unspeakable measures. We should leave this unpleasant duty to others, though as civilized people we should ask that a limit be put on the amount of time Saddam is forced to endure the horror.

Then what?

Now we come to the gutsy part of this enterprise. As mentioned, it is commonly believed that several members of the Arab brotherhood might desire to part company with America once we have created a power vacuum in Iraq. One thinks especially of Syria's Hafez Assad, whose chief difference with Saddam seems to be that he's thinner and smiling more these days, perhaps enjoying the warm glow that comes from having slaughtered, with impunity, his opponents in Lebanon.

Americans will ask themselves and their government if it was our purpose to spend an enormous sum (war cost: $500 million or so per day) and sacrifice American lives to open up new opportunities for Assad, et al.

The answer is obvious. Which means that a different approach is required, and it should be this, at least according to the folks in the barrooms and coffee shops of America: When the shooting stops, let us proceed from this basic guideline: We have won the victory; therefore let us dictate the peace.

This attitude will rile those people who fret for the feelings of the Iraqis, especially those who complain that Islamic culture precludes us from making many changes over there. The response should be somewhat blunt: We have whipped them, and we don't want to have to go over there and whip them again in 10 or 20 years or however long it takes to produce a new Saddam. So, like the Japanese, they're going to become democratic. We'll even write them a new constitution.

Does this mean we have to occupy the nation? To be sure, there is something appealing about the idea of naming, say, Secretary of State James Baker as prefect of New Mesopotamia (when we win the war, we ought to be able to rename the country), perhaps sending along one of the War Party columnists as minister of information.

But for appearance's sake, putting a puppet in place would probably be better - as long as the puppet is totally servile. We didn't go to all this trouble in order to take a lot of lip from an ungrateful lackey.

It is true that rebuilding countries has cost the United States lots of money in the past, but things could be different this time around. We should take financial control of Iraqi oilfields until our war debt is paid off (while we're at it, we might insist that our Kuwaiti allies take care of our nagging deficit). In addition, every American soldier who participated in this effort - pilots, grunts, reserves, etc. - should get a special credit card allowing them to buy gasoline for 15.9 cents a gallon. For life.

Is this plan workable? Probably not, but let's look on the bright side while we still can. The alternative is to admit that by inserting ourselves so deeply in Middle East affairs, we might have really stepped in it this time.