UNTIL THE morning of Aug. 2, it seemed obvious where the world was heading. A democratic revolution was sweeping the planet -- from Asia to Africa to Latin America -- and an era of reduced military tension was beginning. Then came Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and history seemed to have veered onto a new and dangerous track.

But we need to see the guns of August in context. The overwhelming fact of 1990 remains the global democratic revolution -- not the horror show in the Persian Gulf. And the Bush administration needs to keep this fact in mind in crafting its strategy for confronting Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein.

The key, in the view of some prominent Arab analysts, is to link the campaign against Saddam to a broader struggle for democracy in the Arab world. They say that otherwise -- if the United States is seen to be allying itself cynically with the region's kings and emirs in a war for cheap oil -- we may be playing a losing hand. For history, quite obviously, is moving in the opposite direction.

"This may be the Arab world's chance for a breakthrough," says Jamil Mroue, the publisher of Al Hayat, an Arabic newspaper edited in London and distributed throughout the Middle East. He argues that with help from the West, the Arabs can use the Gulf crisis as a bridge to join the democratic revolution that has transformed the rest of the world over the past 12 months.

"The Arab world is at a critical juncture," agrees George Nader, editor and publisher of Middle East Insight magazine in Washington. "This crisis has forced them to decide what kinds of nations they want, and what kinds of leaders. They can catch up with the rest of the world, or fall behind forever."

The simple truth is that the Arab world desperately needs democracy. What was striking, on the eve of the Iraqi invasion, was that the Middle East was one of the few regions that was still afflicted with the old despots and political illusions. Democratic change was spreading this year even to some of the one-party states of Africa. But most Arab leaders continued to recite the same tired litany of grievances and excuses -- mostly focused on Israel -- that for a generation have taken the place of real political dialogue.

The pre-Aug. 2 Arab political landscape was glacial. The same collection of kings and sheikhs and presidents that had ruled the region for a generation were still holding on to power. A few countries, such as Jordan and Algeria, were beginning to experiment with elections. But in too many Arab nations, bribery and bullying remained the principle instruments of politics, rather than the ballot box.

This lack of democracy helped produce the cataclysm in the Gulf. Saddam Hussein's mistakes -- his bullying and overreaching in Kuwait -- are those of a dictator who lacks the judgment and self-restraint (not to mention the respect for human rights) of a democratic politician. It's probably no coincidence that a few weeks before he invaded Kuwait, Saddam augmented his dictatorial powers by having himself declared president for life. That may now prove a shorter term than he had anticipated.

Kuwait, too, has paid a dear price for its lack of democracy. The frightened emir, Sheik Jabir Ahmad Sabah, placed sharp limits on the Kuwaiti parliament and press, which meant that when the crunch came, the Kuwaiti leadership lacked an effective means to mobilize the population for resistance.

Rather than level with their people about the Iraqi threat in the days before the invasion, Kuwait's rulers offered pan-Arab happy talk. On Aug. 1, a few hours before Iraqi tanks rolled across the border, Kuwait radio was still broadcasting a mystical -- and as it turned out mythical -- concept of Arab unity.

"Leading Arab officials speak with admiration and esteem about Kuwait . . . and its national and pan-Arab and human stands and about its people as a people of noble origin," said the radio commentary. "Kuwait's stands have become stronger through its unchanging Arab position toward major pan-Arab issues."

What? And that was 14 hours before the invasion.

For Kuwait and the rest of the Arab world, the old illusions came crashing down on Aug. 2.

"Saddam Hussein pricked the bubble," says Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University. "He showed the feeble nature of the order around him." Saddam has offered himself as the embodiment of the Arab future, but Ajami argues that he is actually a figure of the failed, anti-democratic past.

"Does Saddam offer the Arab masses real power?" asks Ajami. "No. Does he offer political participation? No. What he offers is obedience. He says: You must obey! He says that this Arab culture of nonsense will be whipped into shape . . . . He will replace the feeble state with the cruel state." The problem with American policy in the Gulf crisis is that by coming to the defense of the royal families of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- two regimes that have resisted the global democratic revolution, to put it mildly -- the United States may appear to be propping up the old order.

"The battle is depicted as the Sabahs versus Saddam -- back to the age of the emirs or forward to the age of the despots. But this is no choice," says Ajami.

The only faintly encouraging sign in the Kuwait crisis, argue a number of Arab analysts, is that the skittish pro-Western regimes of the Arab world -- such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- have finally found the courage to speak honestly to their populations about what they want.

"Finally the Saudis and Egyptians can be honest with themselves and say: We went to the Americans for help and there is nothing wrong with that," says Ajami. They have lost, at least for the moment, the crippling sense of shame about dealing with the West.

This new honesty may be the real bridge to the democratic revolution the Arab world so obviously needs. The defining characteristic of undemocratic regimes around the world has been their fear of what the masses might do if they knew the truth. This Great Fear led to 70 years of official lies in the Soviet Union, and it has warped Arab politics in similar ways. Arab political leaders blame their problems on "the Zionist entity," not because they think anyone really believes it, but because it helps hide their own mistakes and incompetence.

Perhaps the iceberg of Arab politics is finally melting in the ferocious August heat. But we should understand that the process of political change, if it comes to the Arab world, won't be smooth or easy. People may get hurt, including some of America's traditional friends, as the old political order is transformed into something new. The West can help by pushing this process toward democracy and reform -- and away from despotism and reaction.

Sometimes war is a catalyst for necessary political change. The global democratic revolution had, until now, been mostly bloodless. It would be typical for the Arab world to be an exception in this regard, too.

David Ignatius is The Washington Post's foreign editor.