Everynight now the world goes to sleep knowing that dawn could bring the outbreak of war. Any one of a dozen easily imaginable incidents could start hostilities between Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the forces assembled under American leadership to punish his aggression and to contest his bid for control of the Middle East's oil supply.
That knowledge inclines people to think seriously, and many of those I interviewed last week on a swing through New England were doing just that. There's a lot to be learned. And the wretched 30-second TV ads in the campaigns now underway aren't the way to learn it.
Two sets of questions seem certain to be on the agenda even if we find a way to deal with Saddam Hussein and avoid military casualties and hostage deaths. It is obvious that we have undertaken a new and vastly enlarged commitment to the security of the Persian Gulf states. How will we fulfill that commitment and what will we get in return -- by way of guaranteed access to the region's oil at stable, predictable prices?
Now that the whole world has taken responsibility for peacekeeping in the Middle East, sovereignty in the region must be redefined. Neither OPEC price-setting nor Israeli treatment of Palestinians can be regarded any longer as ''internal'' decisions. But how the United States and its partners play their role remains to be determined.
Here at home, the long snooze over energy policy has been ended. In an increasingly interlocked world, it makes no sense for the United States to price oil and gas far below the level of other industrial nations. Raising that price by energy taxes -- as a spur to conservation and development -- must become a central part of a budget debate made much more urgent by the economy's evident tilt toward recession. But the type of energy taxes and their phase-in need to be carefully considered.
The Persian Gulf crisis has provided a wake-up call for a government and a citizenry that have been wallowing in unearned complacency. It also has shattered a dangerous myth and opened our eyes to a neglected asset.
The myth is that the need for a strong military ended with the Cold War. If the Persian Gulf crisis has proved anything, it is that we bought a lot more in the military buildup of the 1980s than the overpriced toilet seats Pentagon critics held up to constant ridicule. That buildup gave us an airlift and sealift capacity that made this deployment a logistic miracle, a Navy that was able to impose a blockade on Iraq and the active and reserve forces ready to undertake a mission no one had anticipated. The fear of America's air and ground weaponry caused Saddam to halt his advance -- and would be the telling difference if war comes.
That needs to be borne in mind by those who would solve every budget problem by ''whacking the Pentagon.'' This is surely not the last time when our military capacity will be tested in an area of vital national interest.
Equally important has been the discovery of the role the United Nations can play in mobilizing world support -- and legitimizing what might otherwise be seen as a national struggle between one established power and an upstart challenger.
During the long Cold War years, the Soviet veto and the hostility of many Third World nations made the United Nations an object of scorn to many American politicians and citizens. But in today's altered environment, it has proved to be an effective instrument of world leadership and, potentially, an agency that can effect both peace and the rule of law in troubled regions.
We've also learned something about President Bush in this crisis. His great strength is his remarkable combination of courage, collegiality and self-effacement. He showed the capacity to enlist support from other key players in all parts of the world by consulting widely, by demonstrating his own readiness to act and take risks, and by doing it with such modesty that all of them felt like partners, not pawns.
Those are the very skills that could open the path to success in domestic policy as well, particularly in an era of divided government. Those in his circle who press the president to be more partisan or domineering do a disservice to him and the country.
There is also a negative lesson about Bush. He has a strong tendency to adhere rigidly to previously made plans -- even when circumstances change radically. He would probably call it keeping his commitments. But the determination to take his previously scheduled vacation in Kennebunkport, despite the international crisis, is the same tunnel-vision obstinacy that led him in Nashua, N.H., in 1980 to insist that he would debate only Ronald Reagan, as he'd promised to do, and not the other four Republican candidates who showed up that fateful night in the 1980 primaries.
The result then was politically disastrous; this time, his stubbornness is only mildly embarrassing. But unless overcome, it could cause both Bush and the country problems again.