Saddam Hussein has gone to war to gain control of the oil fields of Kuwait and ultimately of Saudi Arabia. The United States must now use convincing military force against the Iraqi dictator to save the oil fields and to preserve American influence in the Middle East.

Saddam respects only force and will respond to nothing else. He rules Iraq through fear, based on the torture and murder of those who oppose him. But weakness lies in this "strength." He is so hated at home that his defeat, even by foreign forces, will be greeted as deliverance by his own nation and by much of the Arab World.

This vulnerability makes the psychological dimension of the struggle against Saddam as important as military tactics and economic sanctions. The Iraqi dictator's base of support is too narrow and too shaky to withstand a sharp, telling blow that would convince Arabs that the United States is finally serious about opposing Saddam.

The other Arab states are too weak and divided to deliver that blow themselves. The politics of the region makes it impossible for them to appeal openly to the United States to do the job for them. But as they did with Ronald Reagan's decision to bomb Libya in April 1986, the Arabs will quietly accept the good done without their help or prior approval once it is shown to be effective.

Reagan's strike against Moammar Gadhafi's terror network is in fact the right model for Bush to update and expand upon in dealing with Saddam. Militarily, this is not Vietnam, nor even Lebanon. But George Bush must face the unappealing reality that if he does not force Saddam to withdraw, the Kuwait occupation will become as large an albatross for his presidency as the Iran hostage crisis was for Jimmy Carter.

The conditions of the Gulf make American involvement in a land war there both unwise and unnecessary. In isolation, the physical characteristics of the region make it appear unwise for the United States to use any force. But the political characteristics make this a rare case where the United States would be unwise not to use force.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait is both symptom and accelerator of the breakdown of legitimate authority within the score of states that make up the Arab nation. By tossing aside the emirate's royal family like so much used Kleenex, Saddam directly challenges the legitimacy of all remaining monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, where Britain established most existing boundaries and political systems in the colonial era.

And by turning on fellow followers of the Sunni faith of Islam, Saddam has also broken the bonds of religious solidarity among the region's rulers. In place of political legitimacy and religion, Saddam would make brute force the organizing principle of the new Arab nationalism he symbolizes. In the confusion and looming chaos of Arab society today, force becomes the dominant source of authority.

The intelligent use of force by the United States in this situation will not be counterproductive, as it would be in many other Third World areas. The impressive display of support Bush has mustered for strong action from European and other allies normally reluctant to support American moves in the Third World is eloquent testimony to this effect.

Intervention may in fact be the only way in which the United States can regain credibility and respect that have been steadily evaporating across the Middle East. It is no accident that the invasion of Kuwait came at the moment when the United States appeared to have no instruments in the region with which to work its will and no particular will to work.

Since the Camp David peace accords of 1979, the United States has given more than $25 billion in military and economic aid and sold billions of dollars worth of sophisticated weapons to its friends in the Middle East. But the gifts and the sales did not buy any effective resistance from American friends and allies to the grabbing of a conservative oil-producing Arab state.

Israel cannot be expected to come to the rescue of a hostile Arab regime in any event. The serious quarrels Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's government has with the Bush administration made it even less likely that Jerusalem would become involved in a Gulf quarrel. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, the other main American regional partners, were ready to take on the Iraqis in the absence of direct and specific American opposition to Saddam over the past year.

Bush has entered this crisis with the air of man who has learned a terrible lesson, similar in kind if not in degree to Jimmy Carter's awakening with the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. The lesson came too late for Carter's presidency. Bush still has time, and the means, to save his.