GEORGE BUSH could assure his place in history if, in the course of the conflict with Iraq, he not only supported democracy in Kuwait and Iraq but advanced the recognition of the Iraqi Kurds' long-denied aspirations as well. Iraq's 4 million Kurds have for years been victimized because in an Iraq officially declared "an integral part of the Arab nation," they're guilty of not being Arabs. Saddam Hussein has forcibly Arabized the oil-rich Kurdish provinces of Kirkuk and Khannaqin, destroyed 4,500 Kurdish villages, towns and cities, including mosques, churches and historic monuments some of which date from the Middle Ages. He has defoliated vegetation and killed herds and has made the land uninhabitable for years to come. Iraq's dictator has interned 1.5 million Kurds in camps and used napalm and poison gas against Kurdish civilians.

Diplomats have drawn a distinction between the plight of Kuwaitis and the plight of Kurds, especially Iraqi Kurds. They argue that while Iraq's invasion of Kuwait is a matter of international law, the repression of Iraq's Kurds is an internal question. In fact, the Kurdish problem is as important for the Middle East's strategic balance and peace as the Palestinian question or the restoration of sovereignty in Kuwait or Lebanon.

Since the Baath Party seized power in 1968, 200,000 Kurds have been massacred, an extermination that ranks as one of the most deadly undertakings in recent history. Arab countries -- never slow to denounce Israeli repression in the occupied territories -- have not said a word. Nor have the United States, the Soviet Union or France. Despite the images of the 5,000 Kurdish civilians gassed to death in the Iraqi town of Halabja in March 1988 -- despite this violation of the Geneva protocol outlawing the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons -- governments remained silent. And one week after the ceasefire with Iran, Iraq again gassed its own citizens in August 1988 during what it called its "final offensive against the Kurdish traitors." Some 65,000 Iraqi Kurds escaped to Turkey; their accounts horrified the world. A dozen states condemned Baghdad for this act and asked the United Nations to investigate. But when Iraq objected, no power, great or small, imposed sanctions. The Bush administration even thwarted application of economic sanctions voted unanimously by the Senate.

Outside of a handful of human rights activists and a few Western journalists, the Kurdish massacres were forgotten. Thus did the West lose an exceptional chance to lend its foreign policy a moral dimension.

The Kurds now number more than 20 million and are spread out in an arc from Iran and the Soviet Union in the east to Iraq, Turkey and Syria in the west. Denied their own country -- and even an authentic cultural identity -- the Kurds reiterate "the Kurds have no friends" as an unofficial national motto.

Iraq's Kurds have a special place in the litany of betrayal. They were annexed forcibly by League of Nations decision in 1925 despite an investigating mission's conclusion that most of the population of this Kurdish territory favored an independent Kurdistan. Imperial Britain incorporated the Kurds into Iraq, arguing that the Iraqi state, which London had just created out of whole cloth, would not be viable without Kurdistan's oil and agricultural riches. Britain even reneged on promises of self-rule. The RAF bombed repeated Kurdish uprisings into submission between 1920 and 1930. For 30 years, Kurds have fought against successive dictatorships in Baghdad for Kurdish autonomy.

Washington, too, has played its part. Based on promises of American support, the forces of Mollah Mustafa Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader, joined Israel and the late shah of Iran in 1974 in fighting Saddam Hussein -- despite Iran's long record of treachery towards the Kurds. The next year, the Kurds once again proved to be expendable: The shah struck a deal with a much weakened Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled abroad.

Right after World War I, when the fate of the Ottoman Empire was under discussion, Woodrow Wilson said the Kurds were among the Middle East's peoples most deserving of their own state. If the aspirations of Iraqi Kurds were to be recognized, doubtless Turkey and Iran, fearful of a precedent for their own Kurdish minorities, would protest. But with the awakening of democracy throughout the world, long oppressed peoples again have begun to hope.

Kendal Nezan is chairman of the Kurdish Institute of Paris.