AMMAN -- The surge of Arab backing here for Saddam Hussein may be President Bush's ugliest surprise in his effort to reverse Iraq's takeover of Kuwait.
Bush's problem is not that the strongman of Baghdad is suddenly seen to possess hidden graces. Saddam's popularity results from mindless U.S. policy that after many years has trivialized Arab nationalism while sustaining and strengthening the state of Israel. That gives Saddam his opening.
Here in comparatively quiet Jordan, tens of thousands of average citizens have joined the new ''Committee in Support of Iraq Against Foreign Aggression.'' Sucking up recruits like a vacuum cleaner, the committee and the political force behind it suggest that in moving U.S. troops to intervene in an inter-Arab fight -- even for so important an object as safeguarding Saudi Arabia -- Bush has unleashed a monster.
The monster may pose a potential danger to Western oil interests far greater than Iraq's absorption of Kuwait.
''It's amazing,'' a Western diplomat told us. ''Even friends of mine with financial interests in Kuwait have signed up to thumb their nose at America.''
King Hussein's treatment by Bush administration officials has not helped. Weeks ago Washington started a quiet campaign, criticizing him as a political incompetent. That is strange, considering the recent installation of a British-style parliamentary democracy following the elections.
This criticism escalated during the buildup to Saddam's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. King Hussein attempted the role of mediator to prevent the invasion and what he feared would follow it: Western intervention. He foresaw devastating implications, both for the Arab world and for the West.
The king's mediation effort failed, angering U.S. diplomats who apparently had counted heavily on him. Last week, Washington dispatched a highly unflattering and secret message to him, unsigned. It informed him that the United States had been prepared to ''heed'' his advice, but since the advice was wrong, the United States had suffered.
The king's aides were taken aback. But in fact, the implied lecture from the Bush administration, which is not exactly brimful of Middle East experts, was typical. Despite Saddam Hussein's shocking heist of Kuwait, the administration's reaction to it, as studied here, shows grave misunderstandings and a lack of subtlety.
One very high official told us that every Arab head of state except Saudi King Fahd and emirs of small, oil-rich sheikdoms agrees that if a single Iraqi soldier is killed by an American, it would be taken as ''an aggressive act against us.''
What Bush's aides may not understand is that the United States is not dealing here with ''another Hitler'' but with another world -- an Arab world driven by ethnic xenophobia and religious fanaticism. How then do the United States and its democratic allies safeguard Middle East oil supplies?
Arab politicians say with contempt that the West will have to occupy and internationalize the oil fields. But the military power necessary to give the industrialized democracies control of the gulf's riches would require even more than the sizable forces Bush has ordered to Saudi Arabia. Thousands of Western technicians also would be needed to prevent sabotage, requiring long, dangerous service under inhospitable circumstances.
That outcome may be hastened unintentionally by Bush's dispatch of American troops to Saudi deserts. If the presence of U.S. forces, combined with Saddam's call for action against the infidel, causes political upheaval in the gulf states, internationalization may be the alternative to economic disaster.