Our oil problem is not that we import about half our petroleum or that we are wasteful. It is that oil provides roughly 40 percent of the world's energy and that two-thirds of all known oil reserves lie in a region that is a permanent powder keg. The Iraqi seizure of Kuwait simply created a crisis that, in one form or another, was ultimately fated to happen.

We delude ourselves if we think this is merely a passing episode. American troops could be in the Persian Gulf for years or decades. Even if this crisis resolves itself in our favor, it is hard to imagine that we would calmly walk away and wait for it to happen again. We have started down a new path. The parallel that springs to mind is President Truman's decision to provide military aid to Greece against Communist insurgents in 1947. His move ultimately led to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The task after World War II was to halt communism. The job today is to guarantee access to the energy resources on which the industrial world depends. No amount of energy conservation, offshore drilling or synthetic fuels can replace the Persian Gulf. Even if we eliminated all U.S. oil imports -- a practical impossibility -- other countries would remain hugely dependent on gulf oil. In 1989, it accounted for 35 percent of France's oil, 32 percent of Italy's and 64 percent of Japan's.

A catastrophic oil cutoff would cripple Europe, Japan and many developing nations. In an interdependent world, their economic collapse would become our economic collapse. The logic of the situation demolishes the notion of the "end of history." As formulated by Francis Fukuyama, a former State Department official, this cute theory held that the triumph of Western democracy over communism heralded a boring era without major global conflicts. Wrong.

What breeds conflict is the contradiction between growing economic interdependence and enduring cultural differences. Nations are increasingly interconnected economically but remain divided by religion, ethnicity and history. And nowhere is the contradiction more plain -- and its potential for economic havoc and mass violence more pronounced -- than in the Middle East.

By now, Saddam must see that interdependence works both ways. Iraq imports 90 percent of its wheat, 90 percent of its corn and all of its soybean meal. Bread is a third of the Iraqi diet; the feed grains and soybean meal support the poultry and dairy industries. Oil accounts for 97 percent of Iraq's exports. The country's international bank deposits are frozen. The odds are good that the economic quarantine will hurt. "There will be no consumer goods with which to buy social peace," says Thomas Stauffer, a Mideast consultant. "If you have bread riots . . . troops might refuse to fire on their people."

The trouble is that no one knows how fast sanctions will work or how Saddam will react. Despite its military might, Iraq is a small and weak country. Nearly half its 18 million people are under 14. Only about 10 percent of its economy's output consists of manufactured goods. Still, economic pain may not matter in the end. "Saddam Hussein is a very strong leader who does not bow to pressures," says economist Ibrahim M. Oweiss of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. "So long as he rules, there will be no change in Kuwait."

It is an illusion, though, to think that Saddam or even OPEC is the basic problem. As a cartel, OPEC has been ineffective. It hasn't controlled oil prices over any long period. In 1989, oil prices (adjusted for inflation) were 62 percent below their 1981 level and 15 percent below their 1974 level. If oil were randomly spread around the world, there would be no problem. Oil prices would rise and fall, as do many prices. Saddam's special threat is that he wants to run OPEC with terror and tanks. The bigger problem is that oil is not spread randomly: it is concentrated in a region of volcanic politics.

Even Saddam's passing would not ensure stability. He is simply our latest Mideast villain on a list that has included the Ayatollah Khomeini, Syria's Hafez Assad and Yasser Arafat. The two big jumps in oil prices have both been associated with political upheavals: the Arab-Israeli war in 1973 and the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979. Overhanging the region is the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue. Lebanon is in a state of constant chaos.

For all the talk of American decline, only the United States can provide global leadership. We should neither minimize nor exaggerate our power. We cannot pacify the Middle East. Realistically, we may be able to shield much of the gulf's oil from local disorders. Even this feat, however, should not be attempted alone. It may be stirring to watch U.S. jets streak into the sunset. But if American boys come back in body bags, we will feel bitterly (and correctly) that we are doing the world's dirty work. Arab military contingents will only partially lighten the burden. We need other industrial nations to join in the defense of Saudi Arabia and, ultimately, in a permanent peacekeeping force -- organized through NATO, the United Nations or a new treaty.

The more this remains mostly a U.S. operation, the more it will run afoul of anti-Americanism. After visiting the Mideast in June, political scientist Michael Hudson of Georgetown concluded that anti-American feeling is more intense than any time since the "late 1960s . . . the heyday of Nasserite Arab nationalism, the Six Day War and the rise of the Palestinian resistance movement." We need other countries to show that the interests of the broader global community are engaged here.

Our daunting problem is to bridge the gap between global economics and regional politics. The curse of the Middle East is that its hatreds and rivalries are not only self-destructive but also enormously menacing to the rest of the world. Whether we have the military strength, public patience, diplomatic skills and luck to deal with this tragedy is the essence of the crisis.