PARIS -- King Fahd of Saudi Arabia discovered this month what Washington has long known: a well-turned waffle is a Frank Carlucci specialty.

During the defense secretary's maiden voyage to the Persian Gulf and Europe three weeks ago, the Saudi monarch pressed for an American commitment to protect commercial shipping using Saudi ports. But Carlucci would go no further than promising to think about it.

It was the answer of a man who is intent on lowering the American profile in the gulf, not raising it as the Saudis and other Arab states want. While Iran is laying off the few ships the U.S. Navy protects, attacks on other nations' vessels are actually climbing.

Not wanting to antagonize America's Arab allies by rejecting Fahd's feeler, Carlucci temporized. This time he found a graceful way out of his Fahd problem.

But as the time approaches for the United States to reduce the overblown armada it has assembled in the gulf, such waffling will probably have to be discarded. The gulf Arabs have bluffed the West into providing them with more protection against Iran than they are willing to provide for themselves.

U.S. officials who want to use the current tension to establish long-term U.S. military facilities in the gulf on the sly have found this situation useful in avoiding a renewal of the divisive debate over energy security and guaranteeing oil supplies from the Middle East.

Carlucci appears to bring to the Pentagon a new sense of restraint and realism about the shaky base of regional support on which the American buildup in the gulf perches. On his trip to the gulf, he avoided the kind of rhetoric and self-congratulation that helped lock Caspar Weinberger onto the ladder of escalation in the gulf.

The key moment came in Riyadh when an obviously agitated Fahd tried to squeeze a commitment out of Carlucci to protect Saudi-related shipping, which is outside the tacit truce that the United States and Iran seem to be observing now in the gulf.

In an elliptically phrased question, the king asked about U.S. policy regarding commercial vessels not flying the American flag that are intercepted by Iranian gunships. Did U.S. warships have to wait until neutral ships were fired upon before coming to their assistance, or could the United States see its way clear to authorize earlier protection than it now grants?

We will think about that, Carlucci replied. In Paris on his way home, he put Fahd's question to Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, who has authorized France's smaller but parallel buildup of naval forces around the gulf.

Chirac immediately said the United States and France should agree to Fahd's suggestion. But he added two conditions: There had to be a consensus among the European countries and the United States on any expansion of their naval protection in the gulf, and the gulf coastal states would have to agree to participate militarily in the new effort.

It was an elegant evasion, since both the French and the Americans were sure that the Saudis would not agree to put Saudi frigates in the water to take on Iranian gunboats harassing commercial shipping. While asking the western powers to provide more protection, the gulf Arabs themselves are still fearful of directly involving their forces in the confrontation with Iran.

That is the reality behind the smoke and mirrors that some senior officials in the Pentagon are using to try to make it seem that the Europeans and the Arabs are taking on significantly expanded military roles in support of the United States in the gulf. Unlike Weinberger, Carlucci does not seem to be taken in by smoke and mirrors.

The other condition set by Chirac, for a western consensus, also puts a hidden brake on western military expansion. Middle-level U.S. and French officials have concluded that Britain would probably not join in such a consensus and is in fact pursuing a separate gulf policy that is more favorable to Iran than London publicly acknowledges.

One sign of this attitude comes in softening British support for a United Nations resolution setting sanctions that would be applied to Iran alone. Presiding over the Security Council this month, the British did not move effectively to break the continuing Soviet stall on the issue.

In this tangled web of evasions and deception, Carlucci's careful but clear-eyed reassessment of the American presence in the gulf is a promising development. In not trying to deceive others, he is not likely to deceive himself.