As he has before -- and as he probably will again -- President Bush yesterday alluded to Munich, the German city synonymous with appeasement, to explain why the United States must stop Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Baltimore, Bush said: "Half a century ago the world had a chance to stop a ruthless aggressor and missed it." This time, he pledged, the United States would not make the same mistake.

The problem with the Munich metaphor, the problem with referring to Hussein as a latter-day Hitler, is that it suggests that something like World War II is about to be fought all over again. It's not. If history is about to repeat itself -- something it never really does -- what we are about to see is not the glorious adventure of World War II (good vs. evil), but the chaotic mess of World War I -- down to and including the use of poison gas.

The apt metaphor, in fact, is not Munich, but another European city, Sarajevo. It was there in June of 1914 that the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated. By August, all of Europe had mobilized, and a war broke out that lasted four years. When it was over, the map had been redrawn. The Ottoman, German (really Prussian), Russian and Austro-Hungarian monarchies and empires were gone. The Communists were in power in Russia, and in Germany a one-time corporal was plotting his revenge. World War I ushered in the modern age.

The same sort of dramatic changes are bound to come out of any war in the Middle East. As with World War I, ideology plays almost no role. The United States, a democracy, has rushed to the aid of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, both monarchies and not constitutional ones, either. For the moment, one of our allies is the ruthless dictator of Syria, Hafez Assad, who has his own territorial ambitions (Lebanon and the Israel-annexed Golan Heights), and on its usual fence is King Hussein's Jordan, yet another monarchy and yet another police state. We certainly cannot say American troops have been sent to Saudi Arabia to make the world safe for democracy.

Nor can we say our cause is oil. The intent of all the Gulf states is to maximize the value of their oil: It is all those countries have. Saddam Hussein may be a thug, but he's not dumb. And no matter how much oil he may control in the end, he will not be able to sell it above a certain price. Oil-producing states learned in 1973 that if they set prices too high, the industrialized nations turn to other energy sources.

Bush has done a good job assembling an anti-Iraq alliance -- a mostly American effort with a token number of Arabs. And the president is right in his characterization of Saddam Hussein. If Saddam is not another Hitler, it's because Iraq is not a major power. But he's a bad guy nonetheless. We can all be grateful that Hussein went on the war path before Iraq developed atomic weapons. Had the Iraqi dictator waited five years, what we now call a crisis might be something for which we do not have a word. The United States is right to move now.

But the purity of Bush's motives and the correctness of his response aside, the fact remains that the United States has jumped in on the side of the status quo. In doing so, we have come to the aid of some truly reactionary regimes, monarchies established (in some cases) by one-time colonial powers or buttressed ever since by the West. It's not likely that these regimes will be able to survive a regional explosion. In fact, it's just as likely that the oil that now motivates our policy will ultimately fall into the hands of successor regimes -- regimes not likely to be friendly to the West. Iran, not Iraq, may be the model here. The shah's oil became the ayatollah's.

If, by using the Hitler and Munich analogies, Bush and other Western leaders mean to suggest that they will restore the status quo (get Iraq out of Kuwait, for instance), they are misleading their people. The disparities of wealth in the Middle East are too great, the enmity toward Israel and its patron, the United States, too strong and the various regimes too weak for anything to remain the same. For the United States and the industrialized world, the only solution for its Middle East problem is to break the oil habit.

If even history buffs have trouble recalling the origins of World War I, they will be totally stymied by what may happen in the Middle East. Once again, the cause will be a series of alliances and unexamined premises -- and the naive thought that somehow the old order could be maintained. In history, Kuwait may become a second Sarajevo, yet another obscure place that changed the world.