The naughty new 14-letter word of international politics is "Lebanonization." It's a reference to the splitting of Lebanon, violently and along religious lines, that went on in and after the 1970s, and to the prospective splitting of Iraq now along ethnic or regional lines. It is a tendency of which the American government sternly disapproves.

But the question of whether Lebanonization is good for what ails Iraq isn't so clear-cut. If we are to organize anything resembling a "new world order," we must ask yet another question: Compared to what?It is an old story that the United States favors states already constituted, even malevolent ones, over slices of territory vying to be states. The preference arises from the requirement for stability. In that sense, despite our revolutionary heritage, we are deeply conservative.We also found a way to put disparate pieces together to make a nation, and we tend to assume others can, too.

Lebanon couldn't. The Christian, Muslim and other pieces really never fused, and under the last straw of the Palestinian upheaval, the country buckled about 15 years ago. More recently, its violent feuds have been partially smothered by a massive Syrian intervention. It remains to be seen whether Lebanon can escape permanent Lebanonization.

If Lebanon nearly disintegrated as a coherent state, however, its breakdown did provide some relief and safety for its separate parts. This is the upside of Lebanonization. Ethnics or confessional groups that can't live together might be able to live apart. Perhaps it's not much of a life.

But Lebanonization, or cantonization as it is sometimes called in Lebanon, isn't the worst thing that could happen. The worst is communal and even physical annihilation.

In the Kurdish case, American naivete combined with political defensiveness to produce a lamentable blind spot in administration thinking. From the president down, officials could not acknowledge that categorical renunciation of the "Lebanonization" of Iraq came dangerously close to pronouncing a death sentence on the Kurds.

One remedy, of course, to the Kurdish problem is self-restraint on the part of the outside armies. But this gives gross injustice a free pass, and here it was judged internationally unacceptable. A second remedy for this sort of instability is to get Iraq to treat its citizens decently. That's broadly what's going on now.

In a kinder world, ethnics would have a wall of custom and law to protect them from the overweening states in which they happen to find themselves. Until then, the international community is going to have to improvise surrogate protections. It's unreliable, but it beats standing by while whole peoples succumb.