The West developed the notion that the "pen is mightier than the sword," but that aphorism also applies today in the Middle East. However quickly and completely the United States and its coalition partners crush Iraq militarily, ideas will triumph in the region. The difficult task is ensuring that ideas we find congenial prevail over those we don't.

Saddam Hussein has made the battle of ideas the centerpiece of his campaign to keep Kuwait and dominate the Arab world. He has not limited himself to a territorial concept -- becoming a convert to Palestinian ambitions -- but has plowed other fertile ground. Imperialism, injustice, dependency and despotism are included on his list of notions to be confronted, while Islam, independence, pride, nationalism and modernization are to be embraced. As happens so often in human conflict, if Saddam's enemies let him define these ideas and their application, they will lose in the long term no matter what they achieve now.

This is not the first time that the United States has insufficiently grasped the nature of the underlying struggle. In Southeast Asia, the Communists seized the nationalist, anti-colonial agenda, and America pridefully believed it could succeed where France had failed. Now there is danger that we will mimic British hubris when it tried, through invading Suez in 1956, to stifle Middle Eastern ideas -- in that case nationalism and independence. The United States will surely be more successful on the battlefield. But it still risks what, after Suez, Britain's Anthony Nutting called "no end of a lesson."

The possibility of failure can already be seen in a wide range of U.S. wishful thoughts about the aftermath of war, based on mechanical notions of balancing different countries against one another. Some analysts propose that Egypt play a critical role in Persian Gulf security, thereby ignoring both distance and classic rivalries. They see in Turkey a stabilizing influence, without considering its own internal tensions, exacerbated by the war and its regional ambitions. They toy with the idea of taming Syria's Hafez Assad, now an ally-of-convenience but a proved double dealer who has copious American blood on his hands.

Most artless, many American analysts believe that a stable region can be created without engaging Iran. They forget that a desire to exclude Iran helped produce the current crisis: the forging of Saddam Hussein into an instrument designed to contain Islamic fundamentalism but to go no further. These analysts discount the fact that a country that suffered a trillion dollars worth of damage during the 1980s has for now subordinated regional ambitions to economic recovery that requires Western assistance. And because of decade-old wounded pride, they ignore the fact that Iran cannot in any event be denied a legitimate place in regional politics and should be encouraged to play a constructive role.

Proposals like the above are not geopolitics -- a clear-sighted coming to terms with history, culture and politics -- but geomechanics. Somehow, the United States is supposed to create and manage a new balance of power without the knowledge, the temperament, the ruthlessness and the limitations on democratic politics that were critical to 19th century French and British imperialism. And we are expected to play this role without provoking consequences like those which, for Britain, set the historical backdrop to the Iraq-Kuwait struggle.

Potentially most damaging is the war's rapid evolution into a confrontation between Islam and the West. It is happening despite Israel's forbearance in not responding to attacks that Saddam has designed for this precise purpose. It is happening even though President Bush has finally recognized the repercussions if the war topples Jordan's King Hussein -- a Palestinian-Bedouin civil war into which Israel would inevitably be drawn -- and has cautioned against stigmatizing Arab peoples.

The United States can limit the damage by abandoning talk of war crimes trials that would first require Iraq's unconditional surrender; by declaring foursquare its commitment to Iraq's territorial integrity (threatened, after collapse, by some combination of Turkey, Syria and Iran); by readying a U.N.-Arab peacekeeping force for Kuwait; by building up the Gulf Cooperation Council for postwar security duties; by encouraging Arab-Iranian reconciliation; and by aiming at a rapid reduction of the U.S. force presence after hostilities cease.

But these sensible policies, tailored to the realities of age-old regional politics, must be backed by a campaign to take from Saddam Hussein and his ideological successors the custody of ideas. The Iraqi dictator has tried to sell three Big Ideas -- the Palestinians, the illegitimacy of regional governments and the rich versus the poor. The United States must get on top of all three as a necessary but not sufficient condition of keeping military victory from eroding into political defeat -- including the possibility of America's not being able to operate effectively in much of the Arab and Islamic worlds.

For the United States and Israel to seize the peacemaking initiative on the Palestinian issue will not just be a clever, disarming tactic; it will also be needed to head off the intifada's renewal, the solidification of popular Arab hostility and the slamming of the door on Israel's most precious hope: to be accepted by its neighbors.

The United States must also press the wealthy, unrepresentative regimes it is defending in the Persian Gulf both to broaden the basis of their support -- if not democracy, at least pluralism -- and to spread the wealth. If they value their future, the Saudis and others must begin by pumping tens of billions of dollars into regional development banks in order at long last to promote modernization and social justice in the Arab world.

During the next few months, the war will be won. But the peace can be lost even before that unless the Bush administration develops a far better understanding of regional politics than it has shown so far -- and begins seriously to join the critical battle of ideas.

The writer, an official of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, served on the National Security Council staff in the Carter administration.