MOST PEOPLE, relieved that the Cold War is over, may now worry that a military conflagration awaits the world in the Kuwaiti desert. It is all too easy to envision battling Saddam Hussein's million-man army -- perhaps with the Soviet Union fighting on the American side.

The admirals and generals of the Pentagon are delighted that Americans are getting such a timely exhibition of how dangerous the world remains, even after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It helps them make the case for spending more than $300 billion a year on Stealth bombers, fighters, tanks and aircraft carriers -- in short, perpetuating the massive U.S. defense establishment built with $10 trillion since the Cold War began.

But this is a new era. The United States, after 40 years of containing an aggressive and expansionist Soviet Union with what is now a 2.1-million-member military spread over 1,400 bases worldwide, is looking for a new role in the world. In what has suddenly become an age of declining militarism between East and West, some will inevitably try to transfer the military-industrial combine to a confrontation between North and South. It is time for Americans to question, relentlessly, such strategies.

With Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the first post-Cold War military crisis, a new battle has begun.

In part, it is a battle to cut the defense budget. That is being done in the political chaos that has seized the congressional budget process as it stares down the barrel of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings howitzer of deficit reduction. But whatever cut for the coming budget year finally emerges will reflect the parochial struggle by Democrats and Republicans to protect jobs and favored hometown weapons industries. Even the major weapons cuts voted last week by the House Armed Services Committee -- including cancellation of the B-2 Stealth bomber and the rejection of two new strategic missiles -- are not the product of a coherent new definition of the nation's security needs.

"The budget negotiations are going to come up with a number for defense that is not in any way related to the threat but is related to the politics of the budget resolution," laments Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), the committee's chairman.

Budget dollars are becoming too scarce to spend for threats that are no longer real in a world in which Germany and Europe are united, the Soviet Union is self-absorbed with restructuring, Asia continues to boom economically and the Third World continues to founder. What comes after "containment," the doctrine that organized our Western security strategy to protect the world from an expansionist and hostile Soviet Bloc? What does it mean to go from a bipolar world of East-West rivalry to a multi-polar world of -- what?

The Pentagon's answer to these questions is that the world will be a very dangerous place, full of threats to justify a military establishment that looks the same as the one we have today, only marginally smaller, say 20-25 percent.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argues that when the dust of the Cold War settles, the United States must still be able to hang out a shingle that says, "A superpower lives here."

But many once-staunch cold warriors see a considerably different role for even a superpower. Earlier this year, for example, Paul H. Nitze, career defense strategist and diplomat, told the Council on Foreign Relations that it is obvious that 40 years of strategic thinking "are no longer pertinent to the problems of the future." A new strategic concept may take several years to emerge, said Nitze, noting that after World War II it took a few years for the realities of an aggressive Soviet Union and exhausted Great Britain to crystallize U.S. postwar imperatives. But he took a stab at what a new concept might look like.

"I think the central theme the U.S. should support in the long-range future is the accommodation of diversity -- a world climate in which a large array of political groupings can emerge each in its own individual, and perhaps eccentric way."

"In such a world," Nitze continued, "the United States, with first-class military potential, political, economic and cultural strengths, and no territorial or ideological ambitions, can play a unique role in throwing its latent power in the direction of preserving order and diversity among diffuse and varied groupings."

Such a revised concept means, simply, this: We may need to put a fence around Saddam Hussein, but this will not require the bulky Cold War military we have today.

The Cold War made two significant contributions to U.S. defense planning. One is the military's current system of "threat analysis," and the other is the military system of using "war scenarios" as a planning tool to determine the size of the military, its weaponry and spending levels.

Both of these contributions have conspired to drive up defense spending over the decades; to support large peacetime armies, navies and air forces based on the most advanced technologies and ready for action on short notice. This enormous investment, nearly $10 trillion over four decades, has sat frozen in immense, costly and static confrontation against the forces of the now defunct Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

The "threat analysis" used by the Pentagon to establish requirements for new weapons system, for example, assumes that: if the Soviets could deploy a better bomber, missile or submarine, it is therefore valid to assume they will deploy it. This equation has driven the military to set "requirements" to build new weapons to meet future threats so defined.

This is the system that produced the Air Force's plan to spend $75 billion for a fleet of Stealth bombers based on CIA and DIA projections that by the end of the century, Soviet air defenses, improving at a Cold War pace, will be able to shoot down the 97 B1 bombers authorized by President Carter, as well as all of the B-52s converted to the "low-level penetration" mission.

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney recently decided to go ahead with a new generation of Stealth fighters, again at tremendous cost, because the CIA and DIA estimates predict that the Soviet Union could produce its own version of Stealth in the next century.

The same threat analysis is driving the Navy's bid to build a $30 billion fleet of nuclear attack submarines that will be far quieter than the current Los Angeles class attack boats.

In a recent interview, Vice Adm. Daniel Cooper acknowledged that well into the next century, the Soviets will not have deployed an attack submarine superior to the Los Angeles class. "Possibly equal," he said, arguing nonetheless that the United States must maintain a distinct technological advantage against this postulated threat.

Army Secretary Michael P.W. Stone has postulated a new and improved Soviet tank by the end of the century. There is no evidence that the Soviets can afford to build a new generation tank, but the Army believes such a tank might be on the drawing board. So the Army is working with defense contractors and foreign governments to drum up foreign business for the M1 Tank factories in Michigan and Ohio so those plants will be available later in the decade to build a new American Super Tank.

The Navy is fighting to keep all 14 of its aircraft carriers based on a maritime strategy that calls for U.S. naval air power to attack the Soviet Union in the forward areas such as Vladivostok in the event of global war. With such justification on the wane, the Navy has fallen back to a position that 14 carriers are essential for the "presence" mission, which simply argues that if enough U.S. carrier battle groups are deployed around the world, there will be no trouble.

Outside defense experts, while recognizing that America may face a host of new challenges, say the defense establishment's threat assumptions must change.

"Military power is only one index and I think one of lesser and lesser importance in the future as an index of our overall power," said William W. Kaufmann, professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kaufmann, who has advised a succession of U.S. defense secretaries on strategy, has become a pariah in the Cheney Pentagon for advocating a halving of defense spending by the end of the decade.

The arms race of the Cold War may have made a worst-case threat analysis valid, Kaufmann argues, but the crushing weight of Soviet economic and ethnic problems should force the United States to question whether the Soviets will apply their scarce resources to new technology weapons, or whether they are looking for an opportunity to opt out of the race. Far more likely, in Kaufmann's view, is that they will seek to preserve their superpower status by maintaining strategic nuclear weapons and adequate conventional forces to provide stability at home and security on their borders.

Rep. Aspin agrees. "The cost to the Soviet Union in moving to higher technology in the military area is staggering," said Aspin. "Do we think they are going to be putting their best engineers into making quieter submarines when they have a total collapse in the energy program and their transportation and distribution system is suffering a massive breakdown? No way."

The other Cold War institution ripe for questioning is "contingency planning," the process of erecting war scenarios to determine the sizes of the armed forces.

War scenarios were formalized during the Kennedy Administration under Robert S. McNamara, who postulated that America should have a military capable of fighting 2 1/2 wars at once: one in Europe, one in Korea or Vietnam and a half-war against Fidel Castro or some other Soviet puppet. At the height of the Cold War, it was easy to erect such scenarios.

Now in the aftermath of the Berlin Wall Revolution, Powell has been busy in making the case for a U.S. military that retains robust capabilities to project substantial power around the globe, operates at a high tempo of training and exercise, and pursues exotic new weapons technologies as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

He has reminded audiences how dangerous the world can be even without the Soviets and the demands it can place on U.S. forces: the Persian Gulf deployment of 1987, the Panama invasion of 1989 and the Liberian "presence" of 1990.

But in the cases Powell cites, as Kaufmann points out, the United States committed no more than one division of ground forces.

The U.S. military, cut roughly in half, Kaufmann says, would be able to field four to five divisions anywhere in the Third World while keeping in reserve one active and seven reserve divisions for some unforeseen crisis in Europe. To Kaufmann this is a conservative approach, but it is heresy in the Pentagon.

President Bush has defined the immediate enemy as "instability" and it is true that in the future the threats to U.S. security will be more difficult to discern. But where they pop up, they will be unhinged from the East-West rivalry of the past and often of less direct concern.

"If we no longer look at some of these regional disputes in the East-West context, the first question then is: do we care?" said Aspin. "I would guess a lot of places would just drop off the list because they really were just trumped up East-West conflicts."

To this, Kaufmann, who speaks of "direct U.S.-Soviet cooperation in some of these regional disputes, adds: "We've got to specify what we expect forces to do and stop talking about presence, and being a superpower and hanging out a shingle."

Meanwhile the military is planning war scenarios to deal with ballistic missile attacks by Iraq or perhaps an Iraqi invasion of the entire Saudi Arabian peninsula.

Are these new contingencies realistic? Do they compete with the traditional Soviet threat? Many experts say no. Even in Iraq's massive move into Kuwait this week, the United States could find no direct threat to U.S. interests that warranted any military intervention.

If Israel attacked Iraq's chemical weapons factories and missile industry and Iraq responded by firing ballistic missiles into Israel, would the United States respond? Yes, but probably in a limited way. Would American ground forces be committed to the region? Probably not.

On Oct. 24, 1973, after Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal to attack Israeli troops dug in there since 1967, the United States put the 82nd Airborne infantry division on alert, increased the readiness of U.S. nuclear forces and deployed three aircraft carrier battle groups to the Mediterranean to support the resupply of Israel and counter a Soviet naval buildup.

If a general war broke out in the Middle East among Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Israel, the United States, as it did in 1967 and 1973, would mobilize militarily and diplomatically to terminate the conflict quickly, most experts agree, and would not commit U.S. ground forces.

If that is the case, the planning for war contingencies in the future ought to deal with the realities of the new era and the removal of the East-West rivalry from regional conflicts. Certainly the United States will want to retain a military force sufficient to assure its own superpower status in a post-Cold War world. But retaining that status may actually depend on our willingness to adapt our military thinking to a new definition of national security -- one that emphasizes moral leadership, economic strength, environmental and educational health -- secured by ample volunteer military forces to respond to crises that warrant our intervention.

If war comes, many experts agree, the United States has the "latent potential" that Nitze cited to mobilize its industry and population to respond.

"We never did seriously plan for the Vietnam War," said Kaufmann, "but we had the forces to put in there and whatever it was -- Korea or Vietnam -- the demand ended up at about eight divisions."

Patrick Tyler covers defense for The Washington Post.