"The events currently occurring in Kuwait are an internal affair with which Iraq has no relation."

-- Iraq's Ambassador to the United States, on Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Iraq has promised to withdraw from Kuwait as soon as order is restored. Of course Kuwait was doing rather well, order-wise, until Saddam Hussein of Iraq dispatched 100,000 men (a tenth of his standing army) to overrun it. But we must not quibble. The man has his reasons. He invaded Kuwait, says Saddam Hussein, in support of "the free government of Kuwait" installed by his invasion troops.

Such cynicism is more than amusing. It is a measure not just of Hussein's ruthlessness but of his confidence. He is a thug on the loose with no one to stop him. And he knows it.

What does he want? A lot. He wants Kuwait's Bubiyan island, which commands his outlet to the Persian Gulf. He wants Kuwait's part of the Rumaila oil fields. He wants Kuwait's money. In short, he wants Kuwait. Which he now has and will keep. When he withdraws his forces, he will leave a puppet behind.

Then he wants Saudi Arabia. He might invade. But he need not. The Saudis respond well to intimidation. The other gulf states will fall quickly into place. That makes Hussein leader of the Arab world, dictator of the gulf and the single most powerful arbiter in the world of oil.

He will get what he wants because there is no one to stop him. The United States is far away, and George Bush is not eager to get bogged down in a land war in a God-forsaken patch of desert, even if oil-rich. Moreover, Hussein knows that he has little to fear from a country that has been shamelessly propitiating him since it helped him win the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

At the time, the U.S. tilt toward Iraq was justified given the alternative. (Remember, we also chose Stalin over Hitler.) But that policy became obsolete the day the war ended in August of 1988. Yet the Bush administration carried on regardless. Despite Iraq's growing truculence and obvious hostility to the United States, the administration persisted in its pro-Iraqi policy. As late as last week, when Iraq first sent troops to the Kuwaiti border, the administration was fiercely resisting the imposition of sanctions by Congress.

With Iraq's "naked aggression" (President Bush's words) against Kuwait, all this has changed. The administration has frozen Iraqi assets, imposed a trade ban and sent an aircraft carrier to the region. That is a good start, although we have lost two years in trying to build an anti-Iraqi coalition.

What next? First, exert severe pressure on our allies to join a total quarantine of trade, especially military and high-tech trade, with Iraq. Then tell our friends in the gulf that if they want American protection they are finally going to have to (1) ask for it openly and (2) offer the United States facilities on the ground. Today, Kuwait pathetically requests help from all quarters. But for many years it had resolutely denied the United States any ground facilities because of the fear of being too closely associated with Washington.

We should say: No more. Can't have it both ways. Last week, for example, the United Arab Emirates begged the United States for a joint military exercise in response to Iraq's initial threats. We obliged. The Emirate ambassador then immediately announced that "there are no joint military maneuvers," that "all statements and comments issued so far are unjustified exaggerations," and that, yes, "there is some technical exercises as far as the air refueling to our tankers," but "this is basically an annual exercise which just happened to coincide with the unfortunate new developments in the area." First annual exercise, no doubt.

The mendacity of the smaller gulf states in their dealings with the United States is characteristic of Arab diplomacy. Egypt's presidential spokesman referred to the invasion as "the outbreak of hostilities in Kuwait at dawn today." Syria called for a meeting of the Arab League. The other members are mulling over the idea. Meanwhile, Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo deliberated and failed even to make a statement "pending consultations with their governments."

The Arab world is where Europe was in the 1930s. Everyone is playing his part. The Arab League is playing the League of Nations, which stood by while Mussolini attacked Abyssinia. President Mubarak of Egypt is playing Chamberlain, flying to Iraq to appease the unappeasable, then announcing that his mediation has bought peace for our time.

And Jordan, now engaged in rather ominous military cooperation with Iraq, is trying out the role of Mussolini's Italy to Hitler's Germany: slavish partner to the regional thug. This is ominous because an Iraqi-Jordanian alliance against Israel is the only way in which the current unpleasantness could explode into a general Arab-Israeli war.

So much for the myth of the "moderate Arabs." For several years now Iraq has been touted by the administration as part of the moderate coalition. If "naked aggression" is the way of the moderate Arabs, one wonders what the immoderates are up to.