How odd that the United States, champion of internationalism in the Persian Gulf, should resist a new U.N. Security Council discussion of the war. It is the same council that the American government repeatedly congratulated for voting 12 condemnations of Iraq, including the resolution authorizing a turn to force. Yet its debate Thursday, sought by U.N. members fearing the bombing is taking the coalition beyond the U.N.'s basic mandate, was received in Washington as an embarrassment and shoved behind closed doors.

In fact, a gap has opened between the consensus U.N. goal of freeing Kuwait and the more ambitious American hope to undo Saddam Hussein and neutralize Iraq's war-making capacity. And while this gap would close if Iraq withdrew from Kuwait, another gap is widening. It extends not to war aims but to a peace process. Institutionally, the United Nations has not begun consideration of a postwar settlement. But the Bush administration is already working on its own broad terms. Secretary of State James Baker invites the United Nations to "encourage" plans drawn up by others.It's natural and right that the United States should be thinking of the next stage. The reason is not simply that this country has carried the burden of war coalition leadership. Given the range of American interests at stake in the gulf, it would be negligent not to plan how to serve them after the war.

A series of administration statements, however, has produced no analysis of why or whether it would be good for Americans to get out front. The Bush team seems simply to be figuring that since this country has called the shots in war, it is entitled to call the shots in peace. Conceivably President Bush believes he is riding a grand wave that will carry him, if not into history, then at least into a second term. One can sniff an air of unexamined premises that speaks of national confidence but of possible overreaching as well.

To this take-charge tendency, the label of "new world order" is fixed. Bush first applied the term to define the international cooperation he successfully organized to confront Iraqi aggression. Now it is becoming an umbrella opening over U.S. drafting of a postwar agenda. In this way does the new world order, a phrase with a nice internationalist ring, become the emblem of an American solution, a Pax Americana as it is sometimes called.

What? America is to be the arbiter, the guarantor, the police officer of the gulf? Is this where Bush is headed?

Where is the U.N. or some combination of relevant members? The end of the Cold War finally rendered the U.N. fit for particular challenges. True, it is not practiced at planning or agenda-setting. And the American determination to have the United Nations authorize force but not itself employ force, while necessary in the crisis, deprived the world body of useful command experience. But who can look with a cold eye on the convulsions likely to mark the postwar gulf and want Washington to take first responsibility for them? The gulf is not the Arab-Israeli dispute, an issue far readier for American massage. The case for not dishing off the gulf to the United Nations remains to be made.

And where is the Soviet Union? Here things get interesting. No sooner had Baker (with his Moscow counterpart) pledged "mutual U.S.-Soviet efforts to promote Arab-Israeli peace and regional stability" than unnamed White House officials started murmuring in the go-it-alone Pax Americana vein.

Mikhail Gorbachev followed (responded?) by sharpening the Soviet peace initiative begun by former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. It would compensate for Soviet retreat from global power-flexing by positioning Moscow as true keeper of the U.N. flame, constant friend of the Third World and bulwark against postwar American gulf dominance. Even if Saddam goes no farther than his present toying with the initiative, these roles help Gorbachev fend off conservatives at home. They are also powerful international rallying cries to compete against the American call for a rule of law: one brand of internationalism against another.

The United States wishes Soviet diplomacy well through gritted teeth. But a Soviet gulf bid that produced an evacuation and cease-fire could benefit the United States too, especially if it happened before a full-scale ground offensive got under way. It could restore to Gorbachev some of the internal stature that would make him a more useful partner for Washington in other ways.