No matter that a few weeks ago we wouldn't have recognized his name. Every American schoolchild knows now that Iraq's Saddam Hussein is the No. 1 barbarian of the universe, having replaced Manuel Noriega, who replaced Moammar Gadhafi, who replaced the Ayotollah Khomeini, who replaced . . . who remembers?

Nor does it matter that Saddam himself will soon be replaced. For the troubled present, he serves as the embodiment of international evil, an all-purpose ogre whose very existence explains all the bad things that happen to us.

Louis Rene Beres, a professor of political science at Purdue University, won't be surprised at our attitude toward the Iraqi president. Back in January, when Noriega was the reigning satan, Beres was writing of our need for villains.

"Let us be frank," he said in an op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune. "The barbarian is in fashion again. Why trouble the American citizenry with complicated matters, with intricacies of foreign and domestic politics better left to the 'experts,' with explanations for a stock market in distress and an economy on the brink. Far better to find someone unwholesome to blame for our most perplexing difficulties."

There's no gainsaying Hussein's unwholesomeness, and I offer no brief for him -- any more than Beres did for Noriega. Who could defend a man who used chemical weapons against his own people, invaded and annexed neighboring Kuwait, menaced our friends in Saudi Arabia and now holds thousands of innocent foreigners as hostages against international retaliation?

He is certifiably a menace worth opposing, and the problems he exacerbates are real problems.

The point is to avoid the American habit of substituting villains for solutions. It happens more often than you might think. Many black Americans, beset with seemingly intractable social and economic problems, have expended more effort in painting racism as the source of those problems than in addressing them. Some Hispanic Americans, seeing the economic marginality of their people, have chosen to make war on the English language rather than confront the reasons for their marginality. Noriega became a proxy for the drug menace that threatens to ruin our country. And now Saddam Hussein is the personification of our economic problems.

Weeks before Hussein became a household name, the American economy was in such bad shape that President Read-My-Lips Bush was proposing a tax increase. The stock market was in trouble, thanks in part to the greed of Wall Street manipulators. The housing industry was a shambles made far worse by the savings and loan scandals, whose perpetrators include the president's son.

Hussein's actions have made it all worse -- for us and for much of the rest of the world. Even Gadhafi thinks so, and much of the rest of the Arab world understands that the dangers of allowing him to become the dominant force in the region outweigh the advantage of higher prices for Arab oil. This is not the man any sane person wants in control of a third of the world's oil reserves. But it's a mistake to suppose that eliminating him will eliminate our problems, any more than the capture of Noriega solved our drug problem.

Our problems -- domestic and international -- will survive Hussein, and our preoccupation with his villainy must not be allowed to blind us to the need to address those problems.

Clearly we need to do something about his control of, and our reliance on, Gulf oil (though going to war to guarantee a continuing supply of cheap oil hardly seems appropriate). We need to muster the political courage to set our economy right.

On the international front, we need to repair our relations with the Arabs, taking advantage of the willingness of so many of them to join us in opposing Hussein to build longer-term trust. And we need to look for ways to solve the present crisis without getting bogged down militarily in that part of the world.

Increasingly it appears that there can be no military solution. A land war against Hussein's battle-hardenend troops, on his turf, seems a singularly bad idea, and his fiendish cleverness in using foreign hostages as shields against naval or air attacks on Iraq serves to blunt America's chief military strength.

Negotiations may be our only realistic way out of the present mess.

But we also need to look beyond the present mess and put aside the lie that Hussein alone is the problem. Beres put it far more eloquently:

"A wild longing for strong emotions and sensations seethes in the land, a rage against the toneless, flat and pretend-life of a nation that is always instructed to blame someone outside. Unless this longing is satisfied by putting an end to the falsehoods -- to the sordid promise of surface glitter, smug comfort, sham conventionality and wholly irrational optimism -- falsehoods will put an end to the United States."