Superimposed in big black type over a map of the Iraqi-Iranian war zone, on the cover of the latest Economist of London, is a good question:

"What's a nice thing like oil doing in a place like this?"

The short answer (geologists can give you the details) is that it belongs there. That is to say, it belongs to the Persian Gulf states within whose territories it lies. And these states, for better or worse, have longed since ceased to be anybody's kept clients. By international standards solemnly preached (if not always practiced), it is their sovereign right to sell their oil cheap or dear, pump it fast or slowly -- or leave it in the ground.

Elementary, you might say. But basic elements are something to keep firmly in mind while hostilties between Iraq and Iran are raging around the wellhead, so to say, of a large and indespensable proportion of the energy requirements of the industrialized Western World. A quick refresher course in the elementals of that tormented region is one way to cut through the New Nostalgia so much in evidence as the United States casts around with its allies for almost any means, military or political, unilateral or collective, to safeguard the oil flow.

With the Economist, one can wish whimsically that a nice thing like oil were in a safer place. It used to be -- even in the Middle East. Once upon a time, Western statesmen could sit around over a snifter of brandy and carve out artificial kingdoms and protectorates as rewards to Bedouin chiefs for war services rendered. Big oil was supreme. A British general (Glubb Pasha, he was called) commanded the famous Arab Legion for the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.

When the shah of Iran tottered in 1953, the CIA could conduct a covert counterrevolution against his enemies, and restore him to his throne. When Lebanon was shattered by a multiplicity of insurgencies in 1958, the U.S. Marines splashed ashore and stood guard without firing a shot while American diplomacy put the Lebanese Humpty-Dumpty together again -- temporarily. The U.S. Sixth Fleet once was whistled into position as a stabilizer when Jordan's King Hussein was in danger of being overthrown.

In the words of Archie and Edith Bunker, those were the days.

But those days are not just gone -- they are long gone. And they weren't all golden, at that. A British correspondent I was with at the time recorded the breathless comment of one of the first Marines to go ashore in Lebanon, "So this," he exclaimed, "is Eye-Raq."

He wasn't all that badly briefed. While the preservation of a "pro-Western" Lebanon was the purpose of the landing, it had actually been triggered by the violent and brutal overthrow of a "pro-Western" government in Iraq a few days earlier. With the slaughter of the Iraqi royal family and its government's strongman, Nuri Said, went to the cornerstone of the Baghdad Pact, the West's last center of regional influence and its last real line of defense against Soviet intrusion in the Middle East.

The British have long departed, abandoning, among other responsibilities, their strategic base in Aden to the Soviets. The French are busy, in their way, selling their arms to Iraq -- which gets most of its weapons from Moscow. The CIA, for one reason or another, is not what it used to be, and neither, needless to say, is the more recent centerpiece of American power politics in the region, Iran.

You name it -- saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, the Yemens, as well as Iran and Iraq, Syria with its new Libyan connection, the Palestinians, even Egypt -- all are caught up in endlessly complicated ancient rivalries, territorial disputes, irredentist claims, sectarian fueds or pan-Arabic pretensions that threaten turmoil and upheaval indefinitely, and are beyond any outside power's capacity to influence or control effectively.

And that's precisely why it dangerously skews the argument to talk of remedies in terms of a sudden four-year decline in American fortunes at the hands of Jimmy Carter. To advocate quick military fixes or to suggest some Western reassertion of influence, by the old-fashioned remedies of internal behind-the-scenes manipulation of "pro-Western" political forces, is to suggest that nothing over the past few decades has changed.

Worse, it is to raise false hope, and in the process delay the day when the West is ready to deal collectively, and urgently, with the source of its powerlessness in the Middle East.

The real problem is not how to make the Middle East nicely safe for Western oil supplies. There may be ways, diplomatically and militarily, to make it a little safer for the short haul. But the only solution, over time, is to make the Western industrial giants safe, by energy conservation and the development of alternative fuel sources, from their pitiful, helpless dependence on Persian Gulf oil.