THE Bush administration has emerged from the Gulf war with its prestige at an all time high. This week it will find out just how fungible a commodity prestige is. During a five-nation tour of the Middle East beginning March 6, Secretary of State James Baker III will seek to drum up support for an agenda administration officials believe is crucial to avoiding another conflict in the region: curbing arms supplies, expanding democracy, and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
But while rhetorical support for US objectives is long, Mr. Baker may find the obstacles to change remain formidable, many analysts caution. Despite the decisive triumph of American leadership, they say, the underlying causes of conflict in the Middle East have not been uprooted.
``The Gulf war should be a catalyst, bringing new opportunities for peace,'' says Georgetown University Middle East expert Robert Lieber. ``But it has also left the region at risk.''
Baker will travel to Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet Union. He will also pay his first visit as secretary of state to Israel. US officials say he will carry no formal blueprint for regional security but will listen to what Arab leaders have to say.
Now that the Gulf war is over the US will be under particular pressure from Arab countries to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But the Gulf war, by sharpening Israel's feelings of vulnerability, may have actually diminished the chances of reaching a settlement.
Despite Israel's renewed determination not to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which backed Iraq, Baker
will be looking for new ideas from Israel on ways to start negotiations over the future status of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Israelis are deeply divided on how to procede.
Left-wing politicians call for ceding part of the territories, while right-wing parties advocate expelling Palestinians. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's own middle-of-the-road plan, calling for West Bank and Gaza elections, has been on hold since Likud party conservatives balked over the election plan a year ago.
The liklihood of continued stalemate has been further enhanced by Washington's refusal to table a peace plan of its own.
``Baker won't be going with new initiatives,'' says a State Department official, who reaffirms a tenet of the Reagan and Bush administrations that the US can do little unless the parties to the conflict themselves want peace. ``We want these countries to come up with the ideas themselves.''
Arab diplomats are likely to press for a new UN resolution calling for Israel's withdrawal but even they remain privately skeptical of prospects for change.
Baker may also run into problems as he seeks support for other elements of the postwar order envisioned by the US.
The US and its NATO allies agree that staunching the flow of sophisticated weapons is crucial to preventing new conflict in the region.
But arms control, like the Palestinian issue, faces major hurdles. One is the problem of continuing security threats and regional ambitions that has already prompted Syria, to choose one example, to ask for Scud and SS-21 missiles from the Soviet Union.
``It will be difficult to reach long lasting arms control arrangements unless political and military threats are dealt with,'' says Dr. Lieber.
The other problem lies in convincing arms suppliers to foreswear the lucrative third-world trade that generates huge amounts of foreign exchange. Already there are indications that good intentions may take a back seat to economic necessity.
Questioned by reporters in Moscow last week, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Belogonov refused to say that the Soviet Union would not replace military equipment destroyed during the Gulf war. Later, Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh added that the Soviet Union would be interested in arms control which is regional and multilateral in nature.
The redistribution of economic and political power may also prove far more halting than the US would like.
Faced with the demands for postwar reconstruction, traditional monarchies like Kuwait may find it inconvenient to make more than token political reforms for now.
Elsewhere in the region, regimes are mindful that where democratic reforms have been instituted, as in Algeria and Jordan, the principal beneficiaries have been Muslim fundamentalists.
Meanwhile, Mr. Baker's proposal for a Middle Eastern development bank has been buffeted by criticism, even within the Bush administration.
The Gulf war has widened the dangerous disparity between rich and poor nations in the region. But oil-rich Gulf states, which have given $50 billion in aid to Islamic countries over the past 20 years and which now face huge reconstruction costs, say their largess has reached the limit. The Gulf countries will stick with bilateral aid, from which countries which backed Iraq may be excluded.
The strongest coincidence of US and Arab views is in the area of regional security. Baker will find a receptive audience when he appeals for an expanded but still low-profile US military presence to respond more quickly to future Middle East crises.
Meanwhile, Baker is expected to endorse incipient plans for the creation of a multinational Arab force, perhaps with UN participation, to bear the main responsibility for regional security.
Baker's journey begins just as the Gulf war is winding to a formal end.
Iraq has accepted all coalition demands for a permanent cease-fire, although the release of allied POWs and an estimated 17,000 civilian detainees has been slowed by civil unrest in southern Iraq.