The anesthetizing tranquillity of the post-Cold War world has suddenly been driven away by Iraq's emphatic reminder of the nature of the pre-Cold War world. This echo of the preceding 30 or so centuries suggests how much like the past the future may be.

It is tempting, but misleading, to compare the strutting Saddam Hussein to Mussolini, and thereby diminish Hussein, making him seem, as Mussolini now does through the obscuring mists of history, more absurd than menacing. Mussolini was the very junior partner in the Axis and was last seen hanging from his heels at a Milan gas station. Hussein too is unlikely to die old, venerated, in dignified retirement or in his sleep. But he is unlike Mussolini in two significant particulars.

Hussein radiates a more virulent and personal viciousness than Mussolini did. (Mussolini's internal-security apparatus was evil but not as brutal as Hussein's, and it is unimaginable that Mussolini would have used poison gas against Italians as Hussein has against Iraq's Kurds.) And Hussein disposes of far more military might, relative to neighbors, than Mussolini did.

However, Hussein is a very 1930s figure. He issues ultimatums. He masses troops on international borders ostensibly to give weight to the diplomacy of ultimatums but actually to demonstrate, with contemptuous clarity, that ultimatums are perfunctory preludes to the crossing of borders.

The U.S. response to this, particularly regarding reassurances to Saudi Arabia, will probably be influenced, and for the better, by the fact that today's president is the last of a well-schooled line. Unless Lloyd Bentsen, the former bomber pilot, runs and wins in 1992, George Bush, the former fighter pilot, will be America's last president from the World War II generation. For that generation, war was the enveloping, formative experience, and the word "Munich" is freighted with warning when it denotes analogies.

The lesson of Munich was: When it is necessary to confront an expansionist dictator, sooner is better than later. As Douglas MacArthur said, in war all tragedy can be summarized in two words -- "too late." Too late perceiving, too late preparing for danger.

Democracy is not, as Ronald Reagan and others seem to assume, the certain solvent of danger. Democracy does not necessarily render a society pacific, just as a dictatorship (for example, Franco's Spain) does not necessarily manifest aggressive dynamism. But democracy does generally help domesticate nations. Therefore it is well to note the following:

Democracy has recently been sprouting here, there and, it almost seems, everywhere between the cracks in the crumbling concrete of despotisms. It has been sprouting not only in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but in Latin America, too. However, the world still waits and watches, without grounds for near-term hope, for the first democracy in the so-called "Arab world."

In the 42 years since Israel was established on one-sixth of 1 percent of the land in "the Arab world," the reaction in the region to the existence of Israel has been unanimously hostile, and this unanimity has obscured the fact that the phrase "the Arab world" is only a geographic, not a political expression. The most envenomed and bloody relationships, and most volatile confrontations, do not involve Israel.

The "blame Israel first (and last, and in between)" brigade is large and growing, here and abroad. But it should be given pause by Hussein. Iraq's act is redundant evidence of this truth:

The existence of Israel, and of "the Palestinian question," usually has precious little -- and often, as in this case, nothing -- to do with the largest and most dangerous doings in the Middle East. Today it is especially apparent that Israel is the all-purpose but implausible alibi for the various pathologies that convulse many Arab nations and relations between them.

History will record more clearly than did contemporary journalism the fact that in the 1980s Iraq and Iran fought one of the major wars of this century of big wars. The war raged most of the time outside the range of television cameras and therefore largely outside the consciousness of the West.

This week, however, the West should remember with gratitude recent history's single most effective and beneficial act of arms control, Israel's 1981 bombing of Iraq's embryonic nuclear-weapon program. And this week it is wise to acknowledge that the world became more dangerous because nothing much happened after Iraq used poison gas against Iran. The regime of international restraint, sometimes called international law, was significantly weakened by the weakness -- the virtual invisibility -- of the world's response.

Israel noted that non-response and concluded, not for the first time, this: The unthinkable isn't.

Stephen Crane once wrote:

A man said to the universe:

"Sir, I exist!"

"However," replied the universe,

"The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation." Hussein has demonstrated the sincerity of his bellicose rhetoric. This demonstrates why Crane's poem expresses the essence, and correctness, of the statecraft of the only democracy in that unhappy region.