Unless there is a rapid change in thinking about the Middle East in Washington, the buildup of American troops in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia may prove to be the most regrettable misadventure since Vietnam. On the other hand, the crisis in the Gulf can be turned into an opportunity to work out a security pact for the entire Middle East. Diplomacy must be given a chance.

The dispatch of American troops was a hasty act based on misunderstanding of the people and politics of the region; ill-conceived analogies fit for poetry not policy and an atavistic tendency for intervention that has not yet adjusted to the spirit of globalism, which many people around the world are hoping for.

Comparisons of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to Hitler have been too easily made. To be sure, Saddam is a ruthless autocrat who has committed unspeakable atrocities. He cannot, however, do what Hitler did for the simple fact that Iraq, unlike Germany on the eve of the war, is in dire economic straits, its military power notwithstanding.

The obsession with Saddam's personality and the reading of his mind, which in the hands of some "experts" has bordered on astrology, blinded policy makers to the fact that Saddam did not invent the Iraqi claims on Kuwait. These were made even during the monarchy, when Iraq was still under British tutelage, and were repeated in 1961, when Kuwait gained independence from Britain. Iraq had no such ambitions in Saudi Arabia, and no serious Arab analyst believed that Saddam was about to invade the kingdom. Indeed, if the Iraqis had designs on Saudi Arabian territory, why didn't their tanks keep rolling, especially since they hardly met any resistance in Kuwait? Yet analysts and officials in Washington made an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia seem imminent.

The analogy did not stop here; it seems to have dictated the type of response. Bush, in his address announcing the sending of troops to Saudi Arabia, spoke of no appeasement, implicitly equating the sending of American troops to the Middle East to U.S. entry into World War II. As it turned out, this analogy proved to be even more erroneous, if not more cynical. No sooner was the declaration of American intervention made public than public opinion in the Arab world began to turn in favor of Saddam. The apparent enthusiasm with which Western ships set sail toward the Gulf evoked for many Arabs and Moslems images of the Crusaders (but this time for oil rather than Christendom) and European colonial navies and armies in the 19th and 20th centuries parceling out the area among themselves. The Arabs did not need Saddam Hussein to remind them.

The longer U.S. forces stay in the region the more its position in the streets of the Arab world will deteriorate. A protracted stay in the Gulf would be politically unsustainable at home and would lead to the demoralization of the GIs. And Iraq is not just goingto sit and suffer the results of an economic embargo, especially if it is effective. The deployment of troops in the Gulf renders a disastrous war between the United States and Iraq almost inevitable.

Moreover, the long-term U.S. interests in the region could be put in serious jeopardy. Today, the Arab world is mobilized by two potent forces, nationalism and religion. In Jordan, Moslem Brothers, Arab nationalists and Communists have been marching together against the American and European presence in the Gulf and in solidarity with Iraq. An American-led war against Iraq would only intensify and broaden these feelings.

War is not unavoidable, and the crisis in the Gulf can be turned into an opportunity for the conclusion of a Middle East pact that would resolve the festering problems in the Middle East as a whole. In this pact would be all the countries of the Arab East (including the Palestinians), Iran, Turkey and Israel. The pact would involve withdrawal of all occupying forces from the countries or territories they hold and the guarantee of borders through bilateral and international arrangements. Iraq would withdraw from Kuwait, Israel from the occupied Arab territories and Syria from Lebanon (with an agreement for ending the civil war there) and all would work toward the solution of whatever border disputes that may be present.

Saddam Hussein, albeit defiantly and vaguely, has just made a parallel proposal, which has been summarily dismissed by Washington as a diversion. It should, I think, be taken with utmost seriousness. The linkage of these questions to each other only reflects the reality on the ground. Take, for example, the normally unnatural alliance of King Hussein and the Palestinians with Saddam. Both the Jordanians and the Palestinians have become extremely anxious about the change in the balance of power in the region that would ensue as a result of the influx of Soviet Jews to Israel and the possibility of expelling large numbers of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. For this they needed the resources to counteract Israel's increasing power, which they have concluded the Gulf states were unwilling to provide.

Problems in the Middle East cannot be viewed in isolation from each other, and the opportunity to handle them all at once should not be wasted. Iraq cannot reject the solution without losing its inestimable support among Jordanians, Palestinians and Lebanese and elsewhere. The Kuwaitis themselves would be willing to make certain concession to Iraq in order to restore their sovereignty over their country.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has been demanding a peace accord with the Arab states; this forum would avail him the opportunity to get just that. Syria would certainly not hesitate to trade its unpopular stay in Lebanon for its Golan Heights. Troop withdrawals would be coupled with bilateral and international guarantees of security and borders for all the countries. The specter of war looming over the area and the uncertainity of all parties as to where they will stand at the end of it ought to be compelling enough reasons for them to want to negotiate such a treaty.

Nor should this be interpreted in a reflexive fashion as rewarding aggression. On the contrary, the message would be that the occupation of a neighbor's land, irrespective of the perpetrator, is viewed by the world community as equally unacceptable. Otherwise, the attempt by the West to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait would continue to be viewed by many Arabs as no more than a greedy scrambling for cheap oil, devoid of principle.

The writer is a Washington-based specialist in economic development in Arab countries.