The truly vital American interest in the Kuwait crisis is to ensure that the Persian Gulf is the secure and stable source for the industrialized West of reasonably priced oil. The Iraqi aggression against Kuwait obviously placed that interest in jeopardy. It portended nothing less than the subordination of the Gulf states to a power of demonstrated ruthlessness and radical orientation. Had the United States failed to respond immediately -- as it did, with commendable promptness and determination -- it is very likely that Iraq would have emerged as the region's dominant power and the preponderant arbiter of the price of oil.

Since the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine in 1980, subsequently reaffirmed by the Reagan administration, American policy in the region has been committed to the proposition that American power would be used if necessary to prevent any hostile domination of the Gulf. Indeed, the U.S. naval intervention in the Gulf during the most heated phase of the Iraqi-Iranian war was a reflection of that commitment. President Bush thus acted wisely, and in keeping with established American geostrategy, when he decided last week to deploy American forces to deter any further Iraqi moves, thereby credibly reassuring Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states of American willingness to become militarily engaged even alone.

Behind this truly credible American shield it should now prove possible to obtain the cooperation of the oil producers to increase their production. Indeed, even hostile Iran is anxious to pump more, and friendly producers not only in the Middle East but elsewhere can make up the Iraqi-Kuwaiti shortfall without too much difficulty. Hence the unilateral but defensive U.S. action with regard to Saudi Arabia is having the effect of basically ensuring the central American interests involved in the crisis.

There appears to be general consensus in the United States regarding these imperatives, and the Bush administration justifiably commands broad popular support for its demonstrated firmness. But the issue becomes more complex with regard to the other proclaimed objective of American policy -- namely, the disgorging of Kuwait by its conqueror. Obviously, that too is a desirable goal. A brutal and forcible annexation of a member of the international community by a more powerful neighbor cannot be accepted, and it should not be tolerated. The international order would be in grave jeopardy if it were to be otherwise. That is why an international response is in order, and that is why the United Nations has adopted its condemnatory stand.

But the key point here is precisely the one that has just been made. An international -- and not a purely or even just a predominantly American -- response is needed. If the international community acting in concert can achieve the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, it will be all to the good. It will establish an important lesson and give the world a commendable example of international cooperation in the first major crisis of the post-Cold War era. It will establish an important precedent for the future.

These are not empty words. But they will have substance only if two major requirements are satisfied. The first is that the mandated collective action be truly international, and not just largely an American expedition even if with a large U.N. flag on top. That means that the effort is given serious support, that there is no evasion by either the Soviet Union or Japan or any other major player, that at least some Arab states participate in the application of sustained pressure on Iraq, and that costs are shared internationally on an equitable basis.

Second, it is important that any international pressure through an embargo or a blockade be designed and applied in such a manner as to induce Iraq to negotiate and not to lash out. The attempt should be to squeeze but not to strangle Iraq. That is an important distinction, and it applies particularly to the implementation of any policy of compulsion. After all, the objective here should not be "unconditional surrender," as in World War II, but a negotiated solution.

To ignore this consideration is to invite a cornered Iraqi regime to engage in some act of desperation designed to transform the blockade of Iraq by the international community into a largely anti-American war by the frustrated Arab masses. Here the obvious stratagem for Iraq to adopt would be to move into Jordan, thereby precipitating an Israeli reaction and thus detonating a wider and a very different explosion.

In any case, it is especially important for the United States to avoid becoming the highly visible spearhead of any such effort, not to speak of any largely solitary American effort to choke Iraq into disgorging Kuwait. Failure to exercise due caution in this regard could produce any number of truly undesirable consequences. First of all, the costs of any military effort to expel Iraq from Kuwait could be quite high. It is doubtful that the American public would accept high human casualties as a price worth paying for the restoration of the emir of Kuwait to his throne.

In addition, one must take into account that an offensive American posture, either in any attempted military compulsion of Iraq or even in the enforcement of the blockade, entails formidable risks. The probabilities of escalation are far from negligible. There are simply too many parties in the region waiting to capitalize on the carnage resulting from any military collision. Both Iran and Syria may be tempted to act in order to settle old territorial and political scores. The Likud government in Israel also has an established propensity for unilateral military interventions. As mentioned earlier, Iraq may also find an expansion of the conflict in its own desperate interest. In brief, the region as a whole could erupt into flames.

The result then might not only be a wider conflict but a generalized interdiction of Western access to oil. In this manner the pursuit of the second major goal -- Iraq out of Kuwait -- could have the unintended effect of vitiating the attainment of the first and central objective -- Western access to oil. This would be especially ironic and tragic, for that access -- and reasonable pricing -- can be ensured even if Iraq, subjected to a prudent international squeeze (in contrast to a tightly applied American strangulation), remains for the time being in Kuwait.

None of this is meant to absolve Saddam Hussein of having committed an international outrage. But it is to argue for a policy of deliberate discrimination, a policy that is based on the needed distinctions and not on deliberately generated public hysteria. An example of such hysteria is the oft-cited but fundamentally misleading comparison between Saddam and Hitler. That analogy overlooks the fact that Hitler led the most powerful European nation, 70 million strong and capable of sustaining itself industrially for prolonged warfare. Saddam leads a mere 17 million, without either a war industry or even food production.

Under the existing circumstances, therefore, America must act firmly, even unilaterally, but also intelligently. Its policy must be to deter aggression but not to lead a crusade. To put it more crudely, the flow of oil is ultimately an American imperative; the liberation of Kuwait is the international community's responsibility. The former does not depend on the latter.

The writer was national security adviser in the Carter administration.