Did George Bush win the gulf war only to lose the gulf peace?

It wouldn't be the first time U.S. administration snatched postwar political defeat from the jaws of military victory.Consider, for example, that Americans fought World War II to prevent the takeover of Europe by a totalitarian empire with its capital in Berlin. And then, after the last shot was fired, we sat and watched as much of the continent was taken over by a totalitarian empire with its capital in Moscow.

Bush's motive for ending Americans into the gulf was similar: to prevent Saddam Hussein from creating an anti-Western Middle East empire.

After a few weeks of air war and less than a hundred hours of combat on the ground, Iraqi soldiers were surrendering in droves.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf may have wanted to march on to Baghdad, blowing up Iraqi tanks and weapons along the way, but there were sound reasons for Bush to hold him back.

For one, to keep on fighting - with Kuwait liberated and Iraq's potential for foreign aggression destroyed - would have moved U.S. policy well beyond the stated goals of the international coalition Bush had so painstakingly put together.

And what would have happened after Schwarzkopf took Baghdad? Would Iraq have become a U.S. dependency or would Washington have become the captive of Iraq's byzantine conflicts?

A more promising alternative, Bush decided, was to keep U.S. troops in place and call for an Iraqi revolution. With Saddam revealed as a failed Caesar, Bush hoped, some daring colonel would step up to play Brutus.

Instead, a rebellion erupted among Iraqi Shiites in the south, a group closely linked with Iran's fanatical rulers - no friends of the United States.

The Kurdish minority in the north also rose up - as it has many times over the centuries - to fight for its self-determination.

Either rebellion might have succeeded. The failure of Iraq's army to land a blow on the United States made it appear that Saddam no longer led a credible fighting force.

But that appearance was deceptive. Though no match for a modern military machine, Saddam's soldiers retained enough will and skill to massacre poorly armed guerrillas, women and children.

Initially, Bush promised to shoot down any Iraqi aircraft used against the rebels. His fatal mistake - worse by far than calling on Iraqis to revolt - was to renege on that promise, probably on the advise of State Department analysts, the same misguided wimps who for years offered sacrifices to Saddam on the alter of "regional stability."

What can Bush do now to salvage this situation:

Declare the cease-fire indivisible: no more fighting anywhere in Iraq. Saddam has promised amnesty for the Kurds. Hold him to it. Demand U.S.-supervised safe passage for the Kurds as they go back to their cities and villages. There U.N. agencies should be distributing food and re-building materials, and keeping an eye on Iraqi troops.

Insist on arbitrating peace talks between Baghdad and the Kurdish rebels. A reasonable settlement would have the Kurds agreeing to live within Iraq's borders; in exchange Iraqi Kurdistan would receive cultural autonomy and self-government. The agreement would be provisional, to be renegotiated in five years.

Begin preparing indictments against Saddam not only for his war crimes in Kuwait but also for his gassing of Kurdish civilians in 1988. Make it clear that so long as Saddam stays in power, Iraq will remain a pariah nation.

Would adopting these policies give the Kurds all they seek and make up for all they've suffered? Hardly. But it would leave them more than they've ever won through centuries of bloody struggle.

It would also ensure that America goes down in history as the liberator of the gulf - not as an unwitting accomplice to the slaughter of the Kurds.