AS THE danger of all-out war between Iraq and the United States diminishes with each strategic hour that Saddam Hussein lets slip by, the Bush administration may be getting into an even more precarious position in the Middle East.

The powerful combination of U.S. land, sea and air forces being deployed in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf would almost certainly win a full-scale military confrontation -- and international acclaim for preventing the bully of Baghdad from seizing oil fields vital to both the industrialized and developing worlds. But U.S. policy is vulnerable to failure in an economic and psychological war of attrition that devolves into a popularity contest. Saddam has already attempted to transform his aggression into a fight for the Arab soul, pitting Arab nationalism against foreign intervention.

In effect, a protracted stalemate could be more costly to the United States' credibility and reputation in the region than an outright conflict. In the longer term, the precedents set in the world's first post-Cold War crisis could shape the pattern of diplomacy and military response for decades to come. Having taken the lead in deploying containment forces, if the world's only remaining superpower is then unable to counter the aggression of a tinpot dictator, the way opens for a major new arms race. Third World countries will almost certainly feel forced to scramble for arms -- especially comparatively cheap chemical and biological weapons -- to protect themselves. Without a superpower shield, everyone may feel vulnerable.

Long-term intervention to strengthen Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf sheikdoms could also end up weakening these vulnerable nations. Whatever the reality, their legitimacy may be increasingly undermined as they are perceived at home and in the region to be dependent on or dictated to by Washington. The Arab League voted on Friday to join the Western-led effort. But the vote, with three opposed and two abstentions, leaves open the danger of further polarization in the Arab world.

The bold decision to dispatch U.S. forces included an implicit change of agenda in the Gulf. The unprecedented international unity displayed at the United Nations last week was aimed at condemning aggression in the post-Cold War era and protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of today's nations. But, in the positioning of tens of thousands of American soldiers in the desert kingdom, the Bush administration quantitatively upped the stakes to include a third goal: ousting Saddam Hussein.

Bush said Saturday that he is "not prepared to support" the overthrow of Saddam, but whatever the official position, the U.S. military deployment makes a realistic compromise on anything less than Saddam's removal virtually impossible.

Even if Saddam should unexpectedly withdraw from all or most of Kuwait under pressure from the outside world and his Arab "brothers," he would remain president-for-life at home. Retreating might cost Saddam the booty of his conquest, notably access to rich Kuwaiti oil fields and a vital Gulf port. But he would still have accomplished his underlying goals: creating and leading a regional superpower with control over oil pricing, borders and Arab political direction. Under those circumstances, a U.S. withdrawal would leave the nervous Gulf states -- and the oil-guzzling outside world -- effectively captive to his unpredictable whims.

In other words, once mired in the crisis, the United States will find it difficult to pull out completely unless Saddam is removed from the equation. There are now no other easy or fast escape routes. Even with a massive purchase of sophisticated arms and warplanes, as now seems likely, vast but sparsely populated Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be able to totally deter Iraq for the foreseeable future.

By the end of this week, Bush administration officials were reluctantly conceding that the deployment could last weeks, months and perhaps more than a year. Meanwhile, Arab leaders from both ends of the political spectrum were issuing warnings about the political consequences of an indefinite American presence. A prolonged war of nerves could be in the offing. Even for Arabs who fear or loathe Saddam for his ruthless thuggery, as many, maybe even most do, there is a subtle but important distinction between drawing a "line in the sand" and trespassing -- as the U.S. Marines learned painfully in Beirut between 1982 and 1984.

The great majority of Arab governments appear to have supported the initial two-pronged diplomatic and economic squeeze, which might ultimately have led to the Iraqi leader's ouster. Most recognize that unless Saddam is checked, he may engage in military or political misadventures elsewhere.

But the added component of a foreign military presence with an open-ended mandate is far harder for Arab leaders to justify at home -- especially at a critical political juncture.

Like the rest of the world, the 22-member Arab bloc has been in the midst of a major transition. Frustrated by the failure to solve a morass of economic and political problems, Arabs are now in quest of new ideas and strong leadership to provide alternatives. The political spectrum is in the process of being reshaped.

Over the past three years, a handful of regimes have begun testing the waters of pluralism. Others have been flirting with various forms of Islamic fundamentalism, most so far much tamer than the version in Tehran and not necessarily incompatible with democracy. Ironically, Saddam's totalitarian vision of radical confrontation was on the decline -- until this week.

As was evident at the stormy emergency Arab League summit in Cairo on Friday, Saddam and his lackeys are now trying to shift the focus from their own aggression to the intrusion of a foreign military into the region, to paint the crisis as a confrontation between the United States and the Arab world instead of one between Iraq and an Arab neighbor.

Refusing even to address the basic issues at stake, Saddam, in his broadcast address from Baghdad, instead inflamed passions and called on the Arab world to wage a jihad (holy war) against Western forces in the Gulf. Saddam also urged an uprising against "agents of foreigners" and called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family. In a part of the world that only won independence from colonial masters after World War II, the specter of foreign intervention strikes deep into the proud but insecure Arab soul.

Saddam's propaganda did not convince most heads-of-state, but it may still be able to foment dissent from the man-on-the-street. Despite widespread Arab repugnance for his tactics, Saddam now provides a channel for Arab actions and incomes in a direction that will serve the interests of Arabs, not outsiders.

Although the invasion of Kuwait was clearly aimed at expanding his personal power, Saddam is appealing to Arab brothers on the grounds that the emirs, kings and sultans of the Arabian penninsula have abandoned their own kind and sold out to Western interests. Keeping the price of oil low benefitted only the West, he argues, which in turn is responsible for keeping Israel alive and blocking the Palestinian right to a homeland. He may actually win some support by arguing that the multinational "effort" to squeeze him arises not from world outrage over his conquest of Kuwait, but instead from the West's loss of Kuwait as a pliable ally. Saddam's position is hogwash. But the danger of this appeal is two-fold. First it replants the seeds of extremism that the West had slowly begun to counter through diplomatic pressure, most notably in PLO chief Yasser Arafat's 1988 renunciation of terrorism. In 1982, Iraq was taken off the U.S. list of "state sponsors of terrorism." Within a year, the notorious Palestinian renegade, Abu Nidal, was expelled from his Iraqi headquarters. But today he is widely rumored to be back in business in Baghdad. And Arafat was among the three Arab League members to vote against dispatching Arab forces against Saddam.

Any conflict involving the United States and Iraq is now less likely to be fought in the Saudi oil fields and more likely to be played out anonymously against Western airplanes or in Arab streets -- actions against which tens of thousands of U.S. troops will find it difficult to respond.

Second, even small leakage in the Arab world jeopardizes the world's ability to make political isolation and economic sanctions effective enough to force Saddam into retreat. At the moment, Iraq could survive economic sanctions between three and six months, according to U.S. estimates.

That was roughly the same projection made about Rhodesia, the only other country so universally sanctioned by both East and West in 1967. It survived 13 years, in large part because of a lone ally, South Africa. But in the interim, the white minority government did manage to convert an economy 95 percent dependent on imports to 95 percent self-sufficiency -- while also enduring a civil war. And Rhodesia didn't have oil or access to Turkish smugglers or nefarious entrepreneurs from all parts of the world out to make a fast buck.

A predominantly agricultural country, it did have abundant sources of food, which may be arid Iraq's greatest short-term vulnerability. Baghdad imports 70 percent of its food. Although the Bush administration has officially included foodstuffs in the cut-off, the U.N. resolution does provide for humanitarian aid.

"Down the road, pictures of starving women and children could become a problem for us," a State Department official said this week. The siege of Baghdad may also be the point at which Arabs supporting the blockade would succumb.

Saddam clearly miscalculated in invading Kuwait. And the United States may still achieve its ultimate goal. Despite his draconian grip on the country, the sudden and swift toppling of Eastern Europe's communist despots underscores the vulnerability of even Saddam Hussein. His long-repressed people may indeed react to prolonged isolation and hardships. Iraqis, who have a literacy rate of 89 percent, may be repressed, but they are not all necessarily stooges or unaware of what is going on elsewhere in the world.

But even the best-case scenario may come at a cost for the United States. Although other nations are now signing on to the military presence in the Gulf, it will still be seen as American-orchestrated. And Arabs, as well as others in the Third World, like to think they have some control over their destinies.

More importantly long-term, it could also distract and even undermine the Arab world from the more vital process of moving toward moderation, which is what the United States really needs to secure peace and stability in the Middle East.

Robin Wright, a former Middle East correspondent, covered the Iran-Iraq war and, for more than a decade, the Arabian peninsula. She is national security correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.