"THE TRUE policy is to confront power with power at a selected point where a decision in a military sense is possible, and then to use the delicate and unstable equilibrium as an opportunity to be seized for constructive and magnanimous negotiation."

So wrote the late Walter Lippmann in 1946 about the way the United States should deal with the global communist challenge. It requires no flight of fancy to suppose that he would be saying roughly the same about the Persian Gulf crisis. If "Today and Tomorrow" by Walter Lippmann still ran in the upper left-side corner of the op-ed page of the Post, he would be telling his readers that what was good enough for Joseph Stalin should be good enough for the likes of Saddam Hussein.

He would be roundly condemning as "naked aggression" Iraq's conquest of Kuwait, applauding the deft mustering of an international consensus against it and deploring President Bush's "ass-kicking" bellicosity. He also would be attacking as dangerous duplicity the administration's switch from August's initial, defensive deployment of U.S. forces in the gulf to November's build-up for an "offensive" capability on the ground. For Kuwait's deliverance and the security of Persian Gulf oil, Lippmann might be recommending reliance on the squeeze of international sanctions; on the deterrent power of multinational peace-keepers on the ground; on the projection of American air and sea power to reinforce patient diplomacy. How can we know all that for sure? We can't obviously. Lippmann did not have a one-size-fits-all response to the rich variety of international crises and transgressions that he addressed over almost a half century of public commentary. But Lippmann, the most prestigious American journalist of this century, left behind such a voluminous paper trail of editorials, letters and books that it is not unacceptably risky to suggest what he would be writing about the Persian Gulf today.

For all the turns in his thinking, Lippmann maintained an extraordinary constancy in the underlying considerations and basic principles that guided his approach to the safeguarding of U.S. national security. Morality and legality mattered. He was not belligerent by nature; still less was he a pacifist. Instinct inclined him to turn first to diplomacy, buttressed by financial or military aid for carefully selected allies and international sanctions for adversaries.

He did not rule out the threat -- or the use -- of U.S. air and sea power, in keeping with the "blue water" doctrine of his geo-strategic mentor, Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan. But American military engagement on land was acceptable only when firm and finite ends and means had been clearly identified and vital interests were at risk in a recognized U.S. "sphere of influence." To Lippmann, this meant what he called the "Atlantic Community" -- the culturally connected nations on the two land masses bordering the northern Atlantic Ocean. He was forever constrained by his sense of the limits imposed by a free-wheeling, inner-directed, open society on protracted, ill-defined military interventions in faraway places.

The Lippmann who was wary of entangling alliances with "satellite states {and} puppet governments" likely would have had little good to say about the patch-work partnership of international misfits the United States has assembled in the desert.

Similarly, the man who counseled keeping a safe distance from the "tribal chieftains, the feudal lords, the pashas and the warlords of the Middle East" would surely be dismayed by the depth of America's plunge into the region. He would be no less distressed by the looseness of Bush's stated purpose in the gulf: "Fighting aggression and preserving the sovereignty of nations . . . keeping our word and standing by old friends . . . ensuring the peace and stability of the world."

To this the written Lippmann record would respond -- volubly. The crucial questions for Americans, he said in the late 1960s, are "how wisely, how gracefully, how constructively, they would adjust themselves to the reality of power and to being first among equals; to living with the fact that while we might still be the strongest power, we could not and should not wish to be omniscient, omnicompetent, omnipotent; that we're not the leader of mankind and not the policeman of the world."

"Foreign policy," he wrote in the early 1940s, "consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation's commitments and the nation's power." Anything seriously short of that, he argued, invited "insolvency" and the collapse of public support. It would not escape Lippmann's notice that most of the U.S. Marine Corps and more U.S. troops than were deployed in Europe at the worst of the Cold War have been dispatched to the Persian Gulf against just one local thug. He would be asking how the recession-ridden, budget-burdened United States could afford to cope with even one more? And, anticipating today's debate over war powers, he said the president cannot expect the Congress "to give him a blank check on the Treasury and . . . a blank authorization to use the armed forces."

A doctrine that envisions the United States in any "new world order" as The Enforcer against aggression, anywhere, likely would strike Lippmann much the way the Truman Doctrine struck him -- as a "strategic monstrosity." Lippmann in 1965 said U.S. foreign policy will not be understood until "historians explain" how U.S. intervention in World War II "became inflated" in the post-war era into the Truman doctrine "in which the United States said it was committing itself to global ideological struggle against revolutionary communism . . . . Thus there are men saying today that . . . a truce rather than a victory in Indochina will determine the fate of the world and the position of the United States as a great power . . . . For those who think this way there is no stopping point between globalism and a retreat into our former isolationism . . . . The test of statesmanship is to find those stopping points and to act accordingly." Would Kuwait be such a stopping point? Lippmann's approach to the Korean crisis is instructive. He was comfortable when the Truman administration drew a line of defense in Asia that excluded Korea as a vital concern. He would, presumably, have welcomed the various Bush administration disclaimers -- before Aug. 2 -- of any commitment to defend Kuwait. He also would have been as dismayed as he was in the case of Korea to discover that the administration not only didn't mean it but may actually have emboldened an aggressor by signaling indifference.

Lippmann called North Korea's attack "naked aggression," expressed outrage that "a wretched little satellite can thumb its nose at the United Nations," and was ready for "blue water" American intervention. But he had "always been unhappy," he later wrote a U.S. Senator, "about the unannounced decision . . . . to fight a land war." He was well aware, he said, that American air and sea power probably wouldn't have saved South Korea; his point was that South Korea wasn't worth saving at the price and at the risk of ground warfare on the Asian mainland.

He would almost certainly feel the same way about Kuwait. As for the oil resources of the Persian Gulf, Lippmann would not discount their strategic worth. But he would insist that they are worth far more to some of our richest and most powerful allies than they are to us. Accordingly, he would be critical of the enormous disproportion in the U.S. contribution to the gulf coalition. The written record tells us he would view as repellently excessive Bush's claim that "our jobs, our way of life, our own freedom and the freedom of friendly countries around the world would all suffer if control of the world's great oil reserves fell into the hands {of Saddam Hussein}." Lippmann would be contemptuous of calling Saddam "another Hitler," and of the shorthand of "Munich" and "appeasement."

"You can't decide those questions of life or death for the world by epithets like appeasement," he said in a television interview that comes close to capturing the essence of what Walter Lippmann might be saying right now. "I don't agree with the people who think we have to go out and shed a little blood to prove we're virile men. This is too serious a business for that kind of thinking . . . . And then behind all that lies a very personal and human feeling -- that I don't think old men ought to promote wars for young men. I think it's their business to try as best they can, by whatever wisdom they can find, to avert what would be an absolutely irreparable calamity . . . ."

Philip Geyelin is a syndicated columnist.