IN WARTIME, wise leaders think carefully about what comes after the shooting stops.

World War II illustrates the point. By mid-1944, with some of the toughest fighting still ahead, the United States and its allies had already made detailed plans for reconstruction. Their goal, in this early planning, was to remove the political and economic causes of instability in Europe that had led to two world wars in 20 years. The results included the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The Bush administration lacks any similar blueprint for the post-crisis Middle East. Despite months of preparation for possible military attack against Iraq, officials have not yet formulated any clear plan for handling the political consequences of a war that could affect U.S. interests in the region for years to come. U.S. officials say that only in recent weeks -- with the U.N.-sanctioned deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait rapidly approaching -- has the administration begun preliminary deliberations about how U.S. and allied interests should be protected after a military defeat of Iraq.

One result of this reluctance to peer further into the future is that the United States is heading toward a military showdown after next Tuesday's deadline without clear answers to some key questions, including how quickly the region can be stabilized once a war is over, how citizens there will regard America following a conflict and what U.S. military forces may be needed for extended peacekeeping in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

"We are not a government of planners," explains one senior administration official who has been intimately involved in shaping U.S. strategy in the gulf crisis. "For political and other reasons, there are limits to how much you can plan in this part of the world."

In the absence of systematic planning, some of the Bush administration's judgments about the political risks and benefits of going to war appear to be little more than educated guesses. Take the crucial question of whether the Middle East is likely to face a wave of political turmoil and anti-American violence. Asked last week if such instability is likely, a senior administration official said, in effect, that it all depends.

"All sorts of factors go into it," he explained, "in terms of duration {of a war}, in terms of how decisive it appears, in terms of collateral damage, in terms of the Israel factor, in terms of how much Arab participation there is . . . . If it's decisive, quick, without a lot of collateral damage, with Israel not involved and lots of Arab participation, then there will be virtually no damage {to U.S. interests in the region}.

"If all those factors go the other way, it could be quite terrible."

State Department officials have recently begun consultations with U.S. allies on these issues, but they have not reached conclusions or drawn up contingency plans for helping to stabilize the region and ensure its security, officials said.

"Nobody can {tell} me where Egypt and Syria and Jordan will be" in the days after a war is over, the senior administration official said. "Nobody knows the extent to which we can have cooperation between Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt or between the United States and the Soviet Union" in Middle East policy.

"You can draw a worst-case estimate and a rosy scenario" about the political consquences of war, he said, and "nobody can prove in advance that you are wrong." Congress and the public may conclude that the risks of war in the gulf -- even the "terrible" ones -- are worth assuming, if they are seen to be part of a broader strategy that will reduce future conflict in the region. But U.S. goals, as articulated by President Bush, remain nebulous -- as in the repeated but still vague references to a "new world order" -- and they appear to be shaped largely by the president's own visceral reaction to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his plunder of Kuwait.

Bush's aides explain the president's determination to go to war, if necessary, by noting how moved he was by reading the Amnesty International report on Iraqi human-rights violations in Kuwait.

The administration's focus, in public and private discussions, remains primarily on restoration of the status quo ante, including a withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait and a restoration of the Kuwaiti emir to his throne. Officials have occasionally articulated a broader goal of tapping the new anti-Iraq alliance to overcome old problems in the region, but they haven't developed any serious plan for carrying this out.

As for postwar Iraq, administration officials say they hope for a stable country with intact borders and diminished but not completely ruined military power, run by a non-radical government that harbors no implacable bitterness towards the victors. The administration wants a quick, decisive war in part for this reason. But, as one Western diplomat says, "There are no plans at all about what to do with Iraq {after the war} . . . not that people don't see a massive problem." Many Mideast specialists question whether simply besting Iraq is a sufficient goal for American policy. The status quo ante in the region, they argue, was a mess. In the "good old days," back before Aug. 2, the Middle East was a place of undemocratic governments, unfree people and unending warfare. The Arabs lived in a kind of intellectual peonage to failed ideals like Arab nationalism that were, in many countries, simply excuses for dictatorship. The democratic revolution that swept the rest of the globe in 1989 sadly passed most of the Mideast by.

Political stasis was the rule: In both Israel and the Arab countries, so many years of living on the edge of war had enfeebled political institutions to the point that they seemed incapable of solving basic problems. After four Arab-Israeli wars, an eight-year war between Iraq and Iran and 15 years of anarchy in Lebanon, violence had become the norm in the region. Street-fighters begat new generations of street-fighters. In many Moslem nations, the United States (along with its ally Israel) remained the permanent bad guy -- with a "kick me" sign firmly affixed to its rear end.

Who would want to restore that status quo ante?

War in the gulf may be worth fighting if it helps build a bridge out of that morass, some specialists argue. For in the same way that World War II and its aftermath created the conditions for stability and prosperity in western Europe, the confrontation with Iraq can begin to cure the political disease that has afflicted the Middle East for decades. But only if the United States gets serious about post-war reconstruction.

A Bush administration plan to transform the status quo in the Middle East could be assembled fairly quickly, drawing upon ideas that have been discussed at lower levels in the national-security bureaucracy. Such a strategy would have three basic components: Security arrangements in the gulf. The underlying security problem in the Persian Gulf hasn't changed in 20 years: The immensely rich (and thus strategically important) oil states of the lower gulf are too weak to protect themselves from their powerful neighbors, including the Soviet Union. As J.B. Kelly noted in his book "Arabia, the Gulf and the West," this problem began when the British withdrew their military presence from Kuwait in 1971, and it has festered ever since.

The United States has tried three alternatives strategies since then, and none has really worked. The first was to build up the shah of Iran as the regional superpower and to supply his regime with enough high-tech weaponry to deter the Soviets from meddling in warm waters. That strategy collapsed when revolution swept Iran in 1979 and the shah fled.

By the early 1980s, the new threat to the Saudis and their fellow oil sheikhs was Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. Iraq went to war in 1980 in an attempt to contain the Iranian revolution, and the U.S. gradually moved toward a strategy of encouraging Iraq to counter the Iranians. The United States went so far as to commit its military power to defend Kuwaiti and Saudi shipping in 1987 -- allowing them to continue bankrolling Iraq's war machine.

Iraq emerged from the war victorious but short of cash -- two factors that combined to transform Saddam Hussein into a regional bully. Following Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, a chagrined United States evolved a third strategy for protecting our weak and vulnerable Saudi ally. This time, the United States appointed itself the regional superpower and began sending a vast military force of 400,000 into the region.

This strategy will play itself out in the next few weeks, but many Mideast experts suspect that a permanent American troop presence will not be sustainable. Someone else will have to protect the Saudis and Kuwaitis, who for the foreseeable future will remain too weak to defend themselves from their still-potent neighbors.

A Persian Gulf version of NATO -- with U.S. troops staying on to bolster local forces -- may sound tempting, but administration officials say it is not the answer. The Middle East is not Europe. For political and cultural reasons, neither Arabs nor Americans are likely to accept a permanent American military presence. Indeed, many experts believe that one sure way to guarantee that Uncle Sam remains the regional "bad guy" is for the United States to maintain a large force of ground troops in the region.

"It's a little hard to tell right now, but it seems to me {the new security plan} will have to be something different than the arrangement" before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, said Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Colin Powell on Thursday. "You should not draw from that statement that there's going to be a large U.S. presence indefinitely."

Powell said much of the remaining "presence" will probably be Navy and Marine forces based on ships at sea, although U.S. armaments will also be deployed on land and U.S. forces will conduct joint military exercises with Arab troops. But Powell, like other senior officials, also said he believes "it's early -- still premature -- to talk about what that arrangement would look like, what role the U.N. would play, and what role our friends in the regions would want us to play."

One answer, according to other administration officials, is to build on the existing regional-security organization -- known as the Gulf Cooperation Council -- which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates Emirates. Officials say the logical way to augment the GCC's military muscle is by adding Egyptian troops. The result would be what one key gulf official has called "GCC plus." It's a perfect marriage, U.S. officials argue: Egypt has the manpower and the military experience; the Saudis and Kuwaitis have the money.

The new regional-security scheme wouldn't be NATO, but it wouldn't be nothing, either. And it might work better than the previous two American approaches to the problem. Defusing the Arab-Israeli conflict. The most dangerous aspect of the old status quo in the Middle East was the unresolved Palestinian conflict, which helped fuel a generation of Arab-Israeli wars. And any post-crisis push for stability in the region needs to address the underlying tensions between Israel and its neighbors.

Iraqi rhetoric aside, administration officials hope that the gulf crisis will become a bridge to Arab-Israeli peace. The State Department has dropped its old approach of pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue (with an implicit role for the PLO). The new plan is to encourage direct contacts between Israel and the Arab nations that have been part of the anti-Iraq coalition, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria. Over time, it's hoped, such contacts might lead to serious peace negotiations.

Defusing the Arab-Israeli conflict also means disarmament. And here, some administration officials hope that the post-crisis Mideast will see an agreement to limit or abolish all weapons of mass destruction in the region -- including Israeli nuclear weapons as well as Iraqi and Syrian chemical weapons.

In the past, it has been assumed that Israel would be the stumbling block to any such region-wide ban on weapons. But administration officials say some Israelis are reaching the conclusion that disarmament may be a proposition worth testing. The Israelis know that the Mideast arms race cannot go on indefinitely, and that if it does, Israel may well be the ultimate loser. Even Israel's hawkish premier, Yitzhak Shamir, has expressed interest in a plan for making the Middle East a "nuclear-free zone." A public U.S. endorsement would give the idea a significant push, and win points among Arabs who resent Washington's protective attitude toward Israeli nuclear arms. Political and economic change. The Arab world badly needs democracy and economic reform, many specialists agree. But this may prove to be the most delicate issue of all. For the two key U.S. allies in the crisis -- Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- are governed by undemocratic monarchies that have been among the powerful forces of reaction in the region.

Here, even the boldest thinkers in the Bush administration are wary of pushing too far or too fast. They see a few promising signs of change. A new political leadership may emerge in post-war Kuwait, drawn partly from the Kuwaiti resistance -- whose members stayed inside their country to try to fight the Iraqis after the ruling Sabah family had fled to plush exile in Saudi Arabia.

Winds of political change are blowing elsewhere in the region. In Jordan, Algeria and Egypt, Moslem fundamentalists are playing a growing role in politics. That may look threatening, but it isn't necessarily so over the long run if it draws potential dissidents into democratic structures. The fact that Moslem fundamentalists want political power and legitimacy -- to the point that they are running for parliament -- may in fact be an encouraging sign. For long-run stability in the Arab world will require an accomodation between Islam and democracy.

Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Middle East has been struggling -- without much success -- for stability and coherence. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait blew that failed system apart. It was the first major breach of the post-Ottoman borders in the Arab world. Now it falls to the United States and its allies to try to build a new system that will avoid the recurring cycles of violence of the past. The Bush administration, so bold in planning a war, should not be shy about planning the peace.

David Ignatius is foreign editor and Jeffrey Smith covers national-security affairs for The Washington Post. Post diplomatic reporter Al Kamen also contributed to this story.