Everyone talks about the "fog of war," but the fog of peace is usually a lot thicker. In war, you know the enemy and that you want to win. Peace raises murkier issues of why you were fighting and (assuming you triumph) what you can gain from victory. Even as war continues, we're plunging into this new fog. The Gorbachev peace plan merely foreshadows furious and inevitable postwar diplomatic maneuvering and propaganda contests. The great danger, we're already warned, is that we'll "lose the peace."

You should treat this seriously, but skeptically. "Losing the peace" is one of those deliberately imprecise phrases that aims to upset people more than to inform them. It's often a subtle argument against the war. Most American critics no longer want to denounce the war directly, because doing so would seem disloyal to the troops in the Persian Gulf. The skeptics' solution is to contend that, by "losing the peace," the Bush administration will waste the sacrifices of the troops.

The same argument comes from many Europeans and Japanese, who see the U.S. intervention as an act of bravado that may create more problems than it solves. What does that mean? If it signifies that Americans will become unpopular in parts of the Arab world, then it merely states the obvious. In plenty of places -- starting with Iraq and Jordan -- we're already unpopular. Well, so what? We didn't undertake the war to become popular.

The truth is that we've already achieved one major goal: reducing Saddam Hussein's power. Evicting Saddam from Kuwait was never the main reason we sent 500,000 troops halfway around the world. Our more compelling fear was that Saddam would dominate the Persian Gulf, use oil as a strategic weapon and -- with rising wealth from oil -- transform his military into a high-tech machine of mass destruction.

If U.S. military assessments are correct, Saddam's army has been badly mauled, if not entirely destroyed. Even if he survives, his potential to create future havoc has been curbed. The war should (but probably won't) convince skeptics at home and abroad that this goal is an important one. Whatever weapon Saddam could use, he has used: Scuds fired at civilians; oil spills created to wreck the environment. A Saddam with better missiles, chemical warheads and, perhaps, nuclear weapons would have been much more dangerous.

Of course, the war may breed serious new problems. The Persian Gulf and Middle East may be further destabilized. If he survives, Saddam may emerge as a powerful symbol of Arab nationalism and opposition to American power. The Saudi, Kuwaiti or Egyptian regimes may be undermined by growing opposition from Muslim fundamentalists or Arab radicals. But even if all this happens, it's not a good argument against the war. It would be a lesser evil than the alternative: a well-armed, aggressive and expansionist Saddam.

And it may not happen. Despite dire warnings that Saddam could stir mass unrest in Arab countries, the reaction so far has been fairly tame. Dissent in Egypt, the largest Arab nation (1988 population: 52 million), is reported to be mild. The war could actually foster political stability. The wealthy Gulf states have already cut back their financial contributions to radical causes.

The idea that we'll "lose the peace" implicitly presumes sweeping postwar goals that are virtually unobtainable. It would be nice if the Middle East were suddenly overwhelmed by brotherly love, but it won't happen. The local rivalries and hatreds are too deep and ancient to be erased quickly, if at all. In particular, we shouldn't think that generous postwar economic assistance can easily suppress conflict by creating a mutual interest in regional prosperity.

This is a peculiarly American delusion. We secretly hope to suburbanize the world. Satisfied people won't fight or destroy their material well-being. Though commendable, the wish is too simple. We ought to provide some postwar assistance of a humanitarian nature (food, medicine). But excessive aid -- to Iran as well as Iraq -- is likely to backfire by encouraging rearmament.

Money is money: the more that's provided for economic development, the more that can be diverted to buy new tanks, jets and advanced bombs. The most effective arms control policy for Iraq and Iran may be a poor international credit rating. Our economic aid in the region is most wisely spent helping our friends (Egypt, Turkey) rather than trying to bribe unfriendly nations (Iraq, Iran) into becoming our friends.

Above all, we need to remember that our vital interests in the Persian Gulf are limited. What we're mainly trying to do is to prevent local problems -- war, political instability -- from obstructing the world's access to essential oil. The trouble is that pursuing our vital interests draws us into local quarrels that would otherwise not much concern us. Inevitably, this means that our postwar policy for the region will be messy and full of opportunity for failure.

We need to create a new military arrangement for the Gulf that involves enough U.S. presence to deter aggression and not so much that it becomes a catalyst for more instability. We need to renew efforts to have Israel and her Arab neighbors make peace and, in the process, redress the Palestinian problem. We need to subdue the skepticism of the Europeans and Japanese so they become genuine partners in the postwar process.

These are all daunting tasks. The odds against total success are huge. The possibility of total failure exists. The war just might be the prelude to a larger tragedy whose outlines are now only dimly visible. More likely, the peace will be confusing and inconclusive. The United States, the Soviet Union, Europe and Japan will all vie for influence in the region. The Israelis will resist outside pressures. Arab leaders will strive to strengthen their credentials as true nationalists.

But we should not be misled by unavoidable risks and ambiguities. Winning the peace does not require solving every Mideast problem. If it did, the outlook would be virtually hopeless. All that's required is confining the region's periodic disorders to the region. This is a tall order, but not an impossible one.