ACTUALLY, it wouldn't be much of a war if Iraq took a swipe at Kuwait. Given the disparity between Iraq's swollen million-man army, 2 or 3 percent of which it has just moved showily to the Kuwaiti border, and Kuwait's modest force, it might be more of an afternoon excursion. So unequal are the odds, and so far beyond the practical help of its friends is Kuwait, that tremendous pressure falls on it to accept Iraq's terms.

And what are the terms of the bullying Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein? By his own word, he wants Kuwait to cut back its oil production to the level agreed on by OPEC, the oil cartel; populous Iraq, with a $45 billion war debt to pay and major arms and development purchases to make, badly needs the extra revenues that rising oil prices would bring. President Hussein may also wish to compel cancellation of Iraq's $10 billion war debt to Kuwait. Or he may wish entirely to swallow up his small Gulf neighbor, sovereignty over which Iraq long has claimed. Or to parade the ambitions that grow out of his part in Iraq's eight-year war against Iran.

Few nations have so effectively frittered away the political fruits of immense national sacrifice as has Iraq since its war with Iran ended two years ago. True, Saddam Hussein started the war. But the cease-fire left him in a position to assert that he had fought the battle for all Arabs -- and not only for Arabs -- against Islamic fundamentalism and Persian imperialism. The way he has thrown his weight around since has made him seem as much menace as rescuer.

It is not simply that, ostensibly to deter Israeli attack, he has said in bloodcurdling language that he would destroy half of that country, and that he has apparently accumulated the means to make the threat credible. He has shown a deep manipulative cynicism in his policy in Lebanon and elsewhere. The particular danger in the current episode arises from a readiness to turn a routine regional oil dispute into a brutal military power play whose target is a fellow Arab state, and one of the more democratic and admired ones at that. Had President Hussein deliberately set out to help Israel by diverting international concern from Yitzhak Shamir's alleged policy excesses to his own, this is what he would have done.

With the Soviet Union playing a more moderate regional role, Western concern in the Persian Gulf now centers on ensuring a steady flow of oil. That's the mission of the small American fleet there. By its aggressive policy toward Kuwait, Iraq positions itself directly athwart the broad Western interest in a stable peaceful Gulf.