WHETHER OR NOT American forces engage in a shooting war with Iraq, the confrontation there will redefine the political map of the Middle East for decades to come. Thus as President Bush contends with the immediate diplomatic and military aspects of the crisis, he faces important choices concerning the changed world this crisis is creating. At stake is not only the outcome of the conflict, but the outcome of the peace as well. We could win the first and still lose the second.

Bush's first challenge is to define his precise war aims with respect to Iraq: whether he intends to contain Iraq's tough Ba'ath Party regime and reverse its aggression against Kuwait, to get rid of Saddam, or actually to dismantle Saddam's government.

Keeping up the pressure on Iraq in the form of the U.S.-led interdiction effort might (but probably will not) prompt adventurous figures in Saddam's army to remove him. But after years of ruthless purges in the armed forces, any such figures are likely to be seasoned Ba'ath Party stalwarts like Hussein. Furthermore, economic strangulation cannot be expected to bring results with anything like the urgency imposed on us by this crisis.

On the other hand, a good case can be made that a regime that has twice in the past decade invaded its neighbors -- Iran was the first case -- and may now be developing nuclear capability cannot redeem itself. That implies a strategy aimed at dismantling the regime entirely.

But President Bush may well find that a strategy seeking the rapid liberation of Kuwait, along with the imposition of tough punishments on Iraq, is much more likely to lead to a desirable outcome than these other options.

Because of Iraq's importance within the Gulf, and the significance of the Gulf oilfields to the stability of the world's economy, the risks involved in dismantling the Iraqi regime would be enormous. Such an effort would have huge repercussions in the Gulf, in the broader Middle East and in the global balance between the industrialized nations.

One way by which the United States could win a war and lose the peace is by creating a regional and global balance of power for which it is not prepared. In the Gulf, home of more than two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves, power traditionally has been split between three mutually suspicious power centers: Iraq, Iran and a loose confederation of pro-Western Arab monarchies headed by Saudi Arabia.

For most of the past 45 years, that three-way split worked well enough to prevent the emergence of a single decision-making center. When any two of the three became too friendly, or when any one moved to take over a second, the third would take steps to restore the prior balance. Only on the rare occasions when all three centers agreed on tightening oil exports was the worldwide market badly disrupted. It failed to work on the present occasion mainly because a weakened Iran was unable to help the Saudis contain Iraqi power. Dismantling the Ba'athist regime in Iraq would -- temporarily or permanently -- end the three-centers system in the Gulf. Whoever crushed the Ba'athists would control Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil spigots. If that power also dominated Saudi oilfields, as ours now does, it could exercise formidable authority within world oil markets. Such an outcome would radically change our relationships with the whole of the Arab world and with oil-importing Europe and Japan.

The United States could also lose the peace through the way it wages the war. Even in the event of a massive knockout blow against Iraq, massive casualties can be expected -- on both sides. If Iraq's casualties have been inflicted by a force that is primarily American, implementing a primarily American decision without Arab partners also firmly involved in all stages of the operation, a powerful anti-American propaganda weapon will be available to wield against us in an Arab world long suspicious of our motives.

Pro-Saddam demonstrations are continuing in Jordan, Morocco and other traditionally pro-Western nations, a warning that massive military engagement with Iraq, even if it is quick and successful, could spark instability in these countries.

Israel may be greatly tempted to step into any ensuing vacuum in Jordan. In the first weeks of the crisis, the Israelis have complied with American requests to keep their awesome military capabilities well out of sight, along with their close strategic ties with our forces. It will be harder to ask them to be similarly restrained if neighboring Jordan becomes unstable. Prominent figures in the present Israeli government have long argued that Jordan should be transformed into a client Palestinian state, into which Israel could "transfer" Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. Presently the U.S.-led effort against Iraq has the extremely important support of Egypt, Morocco and Syria, three members of the Arab world not immediately threatened by Saddam. An Israeli intervention in the crisis would, among other consequences, alter the dynamics of the confrontation and would undercut American interests throughout the region.

Furthermore, it should be remembered that there is a segment of the have-not Arab world that believes that Kuwait got what it deserved; that the wealth of the Gulf Arabs, a matter of geological accident, has been hoarded unfairly; and that to protect that wealth the kings and emirates of the peninsula have cozied up to the West and abandoned Arab solidarity.

From this point of view, the mobilization of massive Western forces in the defense of the Gulf states is in telling contrast to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, to cite a single example. This is, for many Arabs, a confrontation between an Arab state and a Western power seeking to impose a solution based on its own Gulf interests. The entry of Israel into the conflict would be a confirmation of their worst anti-Western suspicions. Israel has already made it plain that if Iraq crossed the border with Jordan, it would consider it an act of war, and Iraq has similarly made it plain that, in the event of hostilities, it would broaden the conflict. This is a scenario for potential political disaster. Let us say, however, that the forces as they are presently constituted succeed in subduing Iraq without Israel playing any role. What would we do with a chastened Iraq? Redraw its map?

Any plans to dismantle the Iraqi regime must be accompanied by some idea of what should replace it. This is a country of 17 million fairly well-educated people. More than 55 percent of them, living near the oilfields of the south, are Shiite Muslim Arabs. Roughly 25 percent are not Arabs at all, but Kurds, living near the northern oilfields. Saddam Hussein's own community of Sunni Muslim Arabs makes up the remaining 20 percent, along with Christians and sundry other minorities. They are concentrated in the country's middle, near Baghdad.

Such a demography invites speculation about formal or informal arrangements for partition. Neighbors like Iran, Turkey and Syria could well be interested in pursuing such a scenario; all of them have had designs on Iraqi territory.

As a way to ensure against the resurgence of Iraqi irredentism, a scenario as radical as partition may have its attractions. But partition also implies occupation, and this could only be achieved at enormous military and political cost; it could leave our forces stranded in an endless desert Vietnam. Despite the apocalyptic parallels being drawn with Hitler and World War II, fostering the continuation of an Iraqi power-center would in the end cause the least disruption in a Middle Eastern state system that, with all its significant problems, has proven remarkably resistant to major challenges over the last 40 years. That ultimately means a policy of international containment.

The Middle East has only too many examples of major actors winning a war on the battlefield and then decisively losing the peace that followed.

In 1956, for example, the British, French and Israelis defeated Egyptian forces in a war over the Suez Canal. Within a year, the two European powers had decisively lost the postwar round of diplomacy, thanks in large part to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's strong appeal as an Arab nationalist. The Europeans then lost the preeminence they had long enjoyed in the region. In 1982, the Israelis defeated Palestinians and Syrians in Lebanon, in an exercise supported by the Reagan administration. Two years later, the victors had lost more politically than they had gained.

A key common denominator in both those debacles was the failure of Westerners involved to act in honorable consort with -- or even listen with proper attention to -- pro-Western Arab figures. In the present crisis, it is vital that Bush not make this same mistake.

The administration has already shown its attentiveness to the need for broad international backing for his actions, though Bush did indicate, by unilaterally authorizing interdiction, that he was prepared to "lead" that consensus rather than be shackled by it. Whether he can manage the whole crisis, down to a final graceful exit, without recourse to a United Nations flag, is doubtful. Moreover, if the lasting lesson we take out of this crisis is one of Aggression Repelled rather than Might Makes Right, then Bush's former colleagues at the U.N. will have an important role to play before it ends.

The Middle East is an anomalous region; it lacks the political orderliness of the advanced industrial world, but it can never be regarded as just another part of the Third World. The region's combination of oil, unresolved conflicts and ultramodern arms is inherently unstable.

The American stakes in this confrontation are very high. We risk losing, as the European powers did 25 years ago, our preeminent position in the region. But if we win, we can help usher in a period of stability not only in the Gulf and in international oil markets, but in the burdened Middle East. Those are prizes worth setting our eyes on.

Helena Cobban's book on Middle Eastern military affairs will be published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in early 1991.