THE FIRST night of the war was a big success -- so big that the official impresarios had to caution against "euphoria." But it was a failure, as war always is, and it occurred in a week of failures such as the world seldom sees. Both erstwhile superpowers used their fists instead of their brains.

Bombing Baghdad turned out to be a piece of cake. But the resistance was so piddling that it made you wonder why we had to use so much force (a thousand sorties or more) against Saddam Hussein in the first place. And if you want to attribute our success to brilliantly coordinated strikes that knocked out their radar and missile sites, you have to ask why we thought that those dunderheads -- who lit up their radar and their capital like one giant flashlight to guide our bombers to their targets -- comprised so grave a threat to their neighbors and their region.

If they are so stupid, why could our diplomats not outwit their leader? Our secretary of state, James A. Baker III, is a world-class con man in negotiations. Anyone who ever watched him fleece his rivals in sessions over televised presidential debates knows his capacities. Of course, his boss, George Bush, nixed negotiations with Iraq. He was right on the principle, but wouldn't it be worth it to let the bully think he had won?

If the purpose of diplomacy -- all those experts, with their data banks, their flunkies, their limousines and their pretensions -- is to avoid war, the answer would be yes. But we seem to think that diplomacy is only a function of showing the world that we are right, which is quite a different thing.

"What would be the harm," asked Helen Thomas, the ever-provocative United Press International reporter, at the White House briefing on Jan. 15, deadline day, "of having a Middle East peace conference? Would it be worse than war?"

She was referring to Saddam's maddening call for a regional conference on, among other matters, the Palestinian question. He was obviously searching for a way to save face in the wake of his ruinous expedition into Kuwait and his mad defiance of the world's mightiest military power.

White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater replied to her question that of course a peace conference was not worse than war but added that "we must not reward aggression." Linkage is more loathesome than combat, than bombs, missiles and deaths. But having a Middle East conference would not necessarily diminish us or inflate Saddam. A conference is long overdue. One of the reaons that Arabs relate to Saddam is his sympathy for the Palestinians. Most Arabs, and an increasing number of non-Arabs, feel that the Palestinians are getting a raw deal.

If we were to lend our might and prestige to a resolution, we could increase our own stature rather than his. Mikhail Gorbachev is having a problem similar to George Bush's. He looks at Lithuania and he sees the end of the world as he knows it. Maybe he is right. But does he want to throw away his reputation, tarnish his Nobel Peace Prize, lose the respect and trust of the West by sending tanks against unarmed people?

Can't he think of something else? Can't he think of a better dodge than claiming to be fast asleep when the order was given to attack -- and then praising the general who told them to roll? Now, the father of glasnost is talking censorship.

He has started up the Cold War all over again. He has trampled the dreams that the world began to dream when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. He is just another commissar.

George Bush, a singularly single-minded man, is all wrapped up in the gulf crisis, but when that tension subsides, he will have to deal with the fury of the I-told-you-so right. The left will never forgive Gorbachev either. His failure means that the Pentagon budget, which is already swollen by Saddam Hussein, will be kicked over the moon again.

While all these lamentable events were taking place, disturbing the peace of two continents, war got another pat on the back from Washington in regard to Central America. Why doesn't Baker try to redeem himself for his failure in the gulf by making peace in El Salvador?

We are on the wrong side in El Salvador, although there is no right side. We stand with a government dominated by a murderous military. Over a year ago, soldiers killed six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter; nobody has been tried. Viciousness appears to be in the drinking water. The rebels, the FMLN, shot down a helicopter recently and killed two Americans who survived the crash. The Bush administration has leapt forward to restore $42.5 million in military aid withheld by Congress pending progress in the Jesuit murders.

What a moment to encourage the military to go on murdering. What a moment to prolong another war.

Maybe we have to retrain our diplomats, make them write 100 times in their elegant leather portfolios: The purpose of diplomacy is to avoid war.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.