FOR British diplomats in the 19th century, the ``Great Game'' was to block Russia from the approaches to India, especially in Afghanistan. The United States has also been engaged in a Great Game against the Soviet Union, whose objects have similarly included keeping the Soviets out of the Middle East - to protect not India, of course, but oil and Israel. America's Great Game has drastically changed, however, with the breakup of the Soviet empire and the advent of perestroika. It was unexpected, but perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in his meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev last Sunday, President Bush altered the rules of the game in the Middle East. Mr. Bush accepted greater Soviet participation in Mideast diplomacy, not only in regard to the current Gulf crisis, but in a broader context.
Whether Bush cracked the door or threw it wide open remains to be seen. Nor do we know if Moscow will sidle through the door or stride through it.
Yet there's reason to be hopeful that the new accommodation opens the way to an eventual comprehensive settlement in the region. No final resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the civil war in Lebanon, or various hostage crises has been possible without the acquiescence of the Soviet Union and its clients in the region, notably Iraq and Syria.
The immediate task in the region is to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and thereby lay the groundwork for a post-cold-war order based on superpower cooperation, collective security, and international law, as Bush spelled out in his address Tuesday night. He noted movement toward a ``historic period of cooperation'' and called establishment of that ``new world order'' an additional goal of current US policy in the Gulf. At Helsinki Gorbachev restated his commitment to this goal.
The world provides ample opportunity to test the new cooperation. In the Great Game, the US and the USSR are starting to look like teammates.