IRAQ'S WAR with Iran left it with an immense army and with a leader, President Saddam Hussein, who has a huge appetite for power. Both have been put to ugly use in Iraq's aggression against Kuwait, its small and vulnerable Gulf neighbor. President Hussein inflated a series of grievances eminently open to mediation into "fundamental interests" that could be satisfied, in his view, only by unilateral military dictate. He humiliated the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who were laboring to de-escalate the Gulf crisis, and he ignored the many others -- including the United States -- pleading for restraint. Thus does a man who has earned a reputation as a butcher in his own country confirm a wider role as a regional aggressor.

The immediate question, of course, is whether the dictator Saddam Hussein, having now seated the "Provisional Government of Free Kuwait," intends to keep on going and deploy his armed might elsewhere -- armed might procured initially for his use against Iran by the very countries now trembling before him. The Emirates? Saudi Arabia? He prepared the invasion of Kuwait by denouncing the ruling family, which is in fact one of the more moderate and democratic leadership constellations in the Arab world. He will have no trouble finding the money, slogans and local lackeys to denounce other Arab ramparts of conservatism and royalty too. Most Arab regimes are undergoing a deep crisis of legitimacy, and that leaves plenty of tinder lying around in the Gulf waiting to be lit. Their awareness of this basic fact of political life is what made other Arab governments swallow their misgivings about building up an Iraqi juggernaut and accept President Hussein as their champion against fundamentalist Iran a decade ago.

Kuwait at once sought American intervention. President Bush at once said no. Notwithstanding this country's interest in oil and stability, it would be foolish for the United States to let itself be drawn in directly and unilaterally to fight others' battles in the Gulf. Iraq's fellow Arabs, plus Iran, now have evident reason to make common cause to balance off Baghdad. Meanwhile, Iraq's trading partners and lenders can no longer avoid their plain interest in helping to isolate Iraq. The Soviet Union and France, Iraq's major suppliers of conventional arms, were begining yesterday to fulfill the obvious duty before them. Germany, China and the other countries that have contributed wantonly to Iraq's acquisition of poison gas, powerful missiles and nuclear competence have more reason than ever to follow suit. The Bush administration has sought to find a narrow common ground with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. That wayward experiment in regional geopolitics is at an end. The United States needs to find its way into a new coalition to push back and contain the aggressor in the Gulf.