During the past few years, U.S. officials have frequently paid homage to the principle of nonviolent conflict resolution. No sooner had Iraqi forces crossed the Kuwait border, however, than Washington initiated a series of moves to punish Saddam Hussein for altering the status quo in the Persian Gulf region. Economic sanctions have been taken, covert action is proposed and military action is possible.

This approach is likely to exacerbate the conflict, not resolve it. Those committed to conflict resolution do not divide the world into aggressors and defenders, enemies and allies. They do not take sides in wars between foreign potentates -- not even when one side is offering a lower price for imported oil. Their aim is not to deter misbehavior through punishment or to maintain some temporary balance of power -- it is to assist warring parties to uncover the causes of their conflict in order to eliminate them.

Whatever one may think of Saddam Hussein, the roots of conflict in the Gulf are deep and tangled. Saddam Hussein has acted in a violent manner to alter an economic and strategic status quo that was itself the product of violent activities. In a real sense, the conflict over Kuwait is both the product and continuation of the Iran-Iraq war. The lesson this teaches is that traditional power politics are incapable of producing a just and durable peace.

Resolving this conflict requires an impartial third party capable of helping the combatants to define and solve the problems that have produced hostilities. A number of agencies -- including the secretary-general of the United Nations, the Arab League and various private organizations -- are capable of initiating such a process. The long-term interests of the United States will be better served by cooperating in such a process than by escalating the present conflict.

RICHARD E. RUBENSTEIN Director, Center for Conflict Analysis and Resolution George Mason University Fairfax

Will someone tell me the difference between what Saddam Hussein has done to Kuwait and what our sanctimonious nation has done to Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua and Libya? ARTHUR E. ROWSE Chevy Chase