The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had a group of us in for an Islam-and-the-media session the other evening, one in a continuing series and one of a familar species. Invariably, the discreet purpose is to draw journalists into an educational if not therapeutic admission of provincialism. There can be added a certain invitation to confess to Zionist partisanship, regarded sometimes as doubly regrettable for revealing not just a personal but a social flaw.

So how do we journalist plead? Guilty. But guilty of what? Certainly guilty of committing journalism, that endlessly brazen effort to capture truth on the fly. For that I offered my fellow Carnegie conferees not an an the fly. For that I offered my fellow Carnegie conferees not an apology but a promise -- the promise we journalists always make: to work harder.

But guilty of what else? Showing insufficient respect to Islamic culture or Palestinian nationalism? Perhaps. Our thin knowledge of Islam and the non-existence of a Palestinian state provide all the evidence needed for one sort of indictment.

This is not to say that we journalists do worse by these things than we do by Jewish culture and by Zionism. In the last decade, journalism has evinced a mounting and often overcompensating Mideast evenhandedness. The feedback we get from Palestinians, convinced that the media are part of a historical conspiracy to deny their integrity as well as their political goals, is regularly echoed by Jews.

Hisham Sharabi sees four sources of a distorted Arab image in the Western media. Two of these are historical; two are contemporary: Zionist propaganda and economic scapegoating. Surely someone else has a list of four sources of a distorted Jewish image, two historical, two contemporary: oArab propaganda and economic scapegoating.

Saudi Arabia's oil minister suggested this week that the "actual danger" of Israel is "obviously worse than a potential danger of the Soviet Union." Unlettered Saudis, he went on, attribute American support of Israel to "hatred for Moslems," sophisticates to "the powers of the Zionist lobby." About some part of this, our ambassador-designate to Saudi Arabia said carefully, "I don't think that's what he meant."

What did he mean? What do any of those foreign folk mean? Though the United States is four decades deep into its postwar global involvement, Daniel Pipes of the University of Chicago says, we "still lack rapport with alien customs and mentalities." He says this in a review of a new book, "Debacle: The American Failure in Iran." The right question, Pipes counters, is not who among us lost Iran but how the shah was undone. The answer lies not in tensions betwen Cy and Zbig but in the internal currents, still umplumbed, of Iran.

Well, yes, but, wait a minute. I used to feel the important thing was to get inside the skull of foreigners. If we had really understood the Vietnamese, for instance, or so many of us felt at the time, we wouldn't have butted into their war. If we could only understand the Russians. . . . But now I'm not so sure what to do with what we find in the skull of foreigners. Much of what I see there leaves me nonplused. What follows understanding? Is to understand to forgive? How does that relate to our feelings, our interests? What understanding of ourselves are we entitled to expect in return?

Take the full-page ad that United Technologies Corp. ran in the Monday Post, "Renaissance of Islam -- Art of the Mamluks," a coming Smithsonian attraction. Once we understand that art, or thus salute the contemporary inheritors of the tradition that produced it, where are we? Let us not neglect respectful gestures. But let us not ignore the new facts of power of which our latter-day cultural enrichment may be only an incidental byproduct.

Or take a recent newspaper column asserting, approvingly, that the AWACS package will "give the United States a greatly enhanced presence in the desert kingdom. Thus the deal was clearly in U.S. interests." Others might conclude that, precisely as the package enhances -- provocatively -- U.S. presence, it is finally not in the American interest, or in the Saudi royal family's. There is a sense in which cultural insight and an ostensibly pro-Saudi policy rub.

Cultural empathy has a tactical value in assessing the other fellow. It adds civility to a relationship. It earns you a right to judgment. It helps you assess you own motives and moves. It happens to be absorbing. But empathy can confuse analysis and paralyze action. It does not tell you of your own motives and moves.

I see aline to be walked between the self-denying, sometimes self-humiliating propensities of the left and the egotistical, overly nationalistic tendencies of the right. The crucial process of discovery in our foreign relations, I believe, is still the one within.