AFTER brilliantly assembling a coalition against Saddam Hussein's aggression in the Gulf and leading troops to victory on the battlefield, the United States is now sounding an uncertain trumpet. The UN Security Council's new resolution is an American initiative that raises more questions than answers. Set out in elaborate detail are the terms Iraq must accept for a formal cease-fire. Nowhere in this 20 page document - with precise timetables for verified destruction of weapons and war potential, a variety of international supervisory commissions and compensation for atrocities - is there a hint of what must be the goal of the whole enterprise: a democratic, peaceful Iraq in a stable and secure region. There is no mention of removing Saddam Hussein, who remains the largest obstacle to peace.
This is not as strange as it seems. The UN charter forbids intervention in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state. But it is even stranger in the context of a resolution that puts Iraq's economy and therefore its national life under tight international control at the discretion of the UN Security Council.
The resolution gives Iraq 15 days to open its defense establishment to international inspection as the first step toward elimination of all weapons of mass destruction. But a month after his army was smashed and against all expectations, Saddam is still in power and stamping out rebellion. This recalls another intelligence failure. In Afghanistan, President Najibullah, who was to disappear when Soviet forces left two years ago, is still there. For all the billions invested in electronic intercepts and s atellites, intelligence services still can't gauge the human dimension.
This is strikingly the case with the rebels in Iraq. The aims and potential of the opposition seem to be a mystery. To be sure, it is prudent for the United States not to involve itself with forces it neither controls nor fully understands. Nevertheless, it is odd to see Washington regarding Saddam as possibly useful in keeping Islamic fundamentalists from seizing power and warding off partition. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't; not a bad break for one so widely condemned as a war cri minal.
As it happens, there is more reason to fear Saddam's survival than to fear Islamic extremism or territorial dismemberment. The assumption that the Arab Shi'ite majority in Iraq would be as radical as the Shiites of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini is unwarranted. Iraq's Shiites withstood Iran's appeals during eight years of war and remained loyal. As for partition, the main opposition groups, Shiites and Kurds, say they want a united country. Turkey and Iran, who might be suspected of having territorial de signs, are more likely to be mutually suspicious and to keep each other - and Syria - honest.
At a recent meeting in New York, an eminent Middle Eastern diplomat bemoaned the coalition's failure to express the distinction, clearly drawn by President Bush, between the people of Iraq and Saddam's regime. The war and its even more terrible aftermath with Saddam still in control, he said, were driving the people to despair but also to bitterness and resentment which Saddam and his party could exploit. He urged an immediate program of humanitarian relief. And he proposed that the people at once be gi ven hope of riddance from Saddam - that the cease-fire resolution include the demand for elections in Iraq within one year, monitored by the UN, for an assembly to write a constitution. As for reconstruction, with the second largest oilfields in the Persian Gulf, Iraq can pay its own way and compensate Saddam's victims.
A distinguished Irishman warned in the meeting that if humanitarian aid were deliberately held back, it would affect the whole Arab world. He recalled the potato famine that ravaged Ireland in the 1840s, killing one million people and driving a million to emigrate. England, he said, did not cause the famine or want it (though some welcomed it cynically as reducing the dimension of the ``Irish Problem'') but the perception that England did not do enough to help has rankled for 150 years.
It is something to bear in mind.