Saddam Hussein has crowded his 53 years with action, as Hitler crowded his 56. Hussein at this point is more a disturbance and cost than a menace to the United States. But he forces us to face facts hitherto sedulously avoided.

The wrong question, with which diplomats are comfortable, is: Which nations in the Middle East are friendly? A more pressing question is: Which nations are really nations?

A retired Egyptian diplomat once said, "Egypt is the only nation-state in the Middle East. The rest are tribes with flags." He exaggerated. But when Hussein said, "There are no borders between Arab countries," he used the idiom of political myth (pan-Arabism) to express a political truth about the thin pedigrees and shallow roots of many Arab states.

Consider Kuwait, a tiny kingdom run by cousins (probably: these things are hard to sort out from a nomadic past) of the thousands of cousins who run neighboring Saudi Arabia. Sixty percent of the 2.1 million residents of Kuwait are not Kuwaitis. This curious sort of nation, not yet quite three decades into independence, has a regime that derives its legitimacy from pre-modern, semi-tribal mores.

In obliterating that regime Saddam Hussein has enjoyed the support of the least kingly king, Jordan's Hussein. He is, we will be assured, the "moderate" component of the pro-Iraq coalition that includes Libya and the PLO.

King Hussein's spokesmen liken Saddam Hussein to Bismarck, the "blood and iron" chancellor who created a united Germany from a loose confederation of states. The comparison is to the wrong German.

Saddam Hussein's resemblance is to another "nasty man with a moustache" (the Financial Times' words) who exploited intoxicating pan-Germanism the way Arab demagogues exploit pan-Arabism. The Germany Bismarck created became dangerous because of something Bismarck neither shared nor encouraged, a longing for more than mere nationhood, a supranational myth of "das Volk," a cultural-racial existence prior to and superior to any mere nation-state.

The parallel between this pan-Germanism and the dynamism of pan-Arabism is not exact but is disquieting. So is Saddam Hussein's emphasis not on the primacy of Iraqi nationalism but rather of the Baath party -- an exportable entity as carrier of pan-Arabism.

Hitler, remember, had an odd relationship to the German state. He was not a German citizen until shortly before he became Germany's chancellor. He loathed the nation's elites -- legal, cultural, religious, administrative, even military. He supplanted national symbols and anthems with party symbols and anthems (the swastika; the Horst Wessel song). Oaths were taken not to the state but to the party leader (Hitler). By 1944 even the military salute had been replaced by the Hitler salute.

Saddam Hussein is not Hitler, but the dynamism of his regime is Hitlerian. That suggests he will not be stopped other than by superior force. Thus the wisdom of the president's decision to show at least part of the blade of a superior sword. Furthermore, the history of Middle East politics may have turned a crucial corner by the unsheathing of the American sword on Saudi soil. Saddam Hussein forced the Saudi government to do what it detests doing -- to choose sides -- and he sees what side it chose.

A Jordanian official refers contemptuously to Kuwait and other Gulf states as "oil wells with flags." But Jordan's Hashemite regime can hardly condescend to others concerning their attenuated nationhood.

Jordan is a jerry-built state, a product first of British diplomacy and then of military conquest (during the Israeli war of independence). Jordan's nationhood has been watery gruel since 1974. Then King Hussein passively acquiesced in the decision of the Arab summit at Rabat to designate the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people -- the representative, that is, of a majority of the people in Jordan.

King Hussein, whose strong suit is survival, not legitimacy, is a natural pilot fish for the Iraqi shark, Saddam Hussein. A Jordanian official says, "The colonial powers vivisected the Arab world to make us weak. If Saddam Hussein can put the Arab map together again, who will regret what he did in Kuwait?" That depends -- or does it? -- on how many more people are killed "to put the Arab map together again," whatever that means.

When was that map together? Under the Ottoman Empire? Before the tribes acquired flags?

That Jordanian diplomat expresses a political culture that has passed from tribalism to decadence without a moment of national flourishing. That diplomat speaks the language of decadence. The plaintive whine of the professional victim, passing out the blame for his condition.

King Hussein's treachery during the 1967 Six Day War cost him half his territory. By the time Saddam Hussein has been shoved back into his cage, King Hussein will have lost a lot more than half his stature. As Israel's tutor on the rights of nations, he will be a spent force.

The United States has two icy interests in this simmering crisis. One is material: oil. The other is prudential: the discouragement of aggression generally. What the United States is completely free of is any warm obligation -- cultural, spiritual, call it what you will -- of the sort that 50 years ago was sufficient to pull the United States into fighting Europe's dictators in the name of Europe's durable nations.