A once-in-a-presidency opportunity to create a new world order. George Bush, still looking for "the vision thing," has yet to clearly enunciate the chief reason why he has committed troops to the Middle East. Bush has said he is there to reinstate the Kuwaiti royal family to power. But the message the American public has heard is that our men and women are risking their lives to keep the supply of oil flowing.

If soldiers start coming home in body bags, either reason will sound hollow.

There is a vision behind the deployment, even if Bush doesn't see it. Saddam Hussein has handed Bush the makings of greatness.

Peace was breaking out all over the globe just a few months ago. It still is, and Bush has the opportunity to use that spirit of global cooperation in Kuwait. He has a once-in-a-presidency chance to create a new world order in which crises are solved through consensus and international law, which, for the first time, a majority of nations are interpreting the same way.

Today's crisis, like the period following World War II, sets in motion forces that, by their very nature, depart from past patterns of behavior and could change the course of history in the Middle East. It can be used as leverage to bring the East Bloc, and even Israel, into a common cause with Arabs and the West.

Since the creation of Israel, there have been five wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors. In each case Israel acquired Arab land, and the United States didn't rush in troops to force the return of that land, as it has with Kuwait.

During the past 40 years, the plight of the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation dominated the Middle East. The debate focused on security for Israel and a homeland for the Palestinians. But the Iraqi crisis changes that. It requires a new look at the long-held Israeli contention, once seen as self-serving, that the real threat to stability in the region will come from inter-Arab fighting and not from an Arab-Israeli conflict.

America's national interests in the region have been defined by four primary objectives. The first has been to ensure the security and survival of Israel. The second has been to ensure access to a reliable and steady supply of relatively cheap oil. The third has been to maintain good relations with Arab nations and seek a peace between them and Israel. The fourth was to keep the Soviets out of the region.

The fourth is nearly obsolete, and in fact the United States is now trying to get the Soviets into the area with military force, since they are already diplomatically on the U.S. side.

The second priority, cheap oil, is not anywhere close to becoming an obsolete priority, but how high a price will the United States pay in lives to preserve access to oil?

There are many, particularly in the White House, who are privately and publicly saying that our highest priority is oil, because it drives the world economy. While oil is important, it pales, in our view, before something else that hangs in the balance of this crisis.

What is at stake in the Persian Gulf is how the United States solves problems in the new world. The role must be defined in a way that fosters consensus, cooperation and diplomatic solutions to crises -- and resists the temptation to become a heavy-handed world police force.

America is in uncharted territory. The absence of superpower competition throughout the Third World has dangers as well as opportunities. When the superpowers withdraw from many world trouble spots, the resulting power vacuum may be filled by regional bullies and dictators. Just last spring, Saddam told Arab leaders that they should seek their own solutions to regional problems, because the Soviets could no longer be counted on to match the U.S. presence in the Middle East. Then Saddam invaded Kuwait as an example of how he took care of his own problems.

In the past, U.S. diplomacy meant dealing with the devil we knew -- countries headed by pro-Soviet leaders who were being challenged by pro-Western guerrillas, or the opposite, U.S. allies challenged by leftist guerrillas. Today's crisis in the Persian Gulf has resulted in an unpredicted unity among nations of all stripes in the United Nations Security Council.

It is a spirit of cooperation that should not be sacrificed for the urge to play Rambo. The temptation to use U.S. troops once they are fully deployed in Saudi Arabia should be avoided.

A multilateral approach through the once-ridiculed United Nations has much promise for world stability and security, if President Bush and his allies can make it work in this crisis.

That is why it is so critical to zero in on a vision that is greater than cheap oil or the needs of the Kuwaiti royal family.