War changes whatever it touches. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait has already changed in important ways the Middle East and the questions Americans are asking in this post-Cold War period.

In the Middle East, the invasion has seriously and perhaps irreparably diminished the authority of Kuwait's ruling family -- forcing it to flee, reminding all that the sheikhdoms of the Gulf are an anachronism in the contemporary world, scattering thousands of contract workers who permitted Kuwaitis to live (like ancient Greeks) off foreign labor. Plundered, terrorized, destroyed day by day, Kuwait may recover, but it will never again be as it was.

Neither will Jordan and the PLO. The Hashemite kingdom has been terribly wounded by its dependence and vulnerability vis-a-vis Iraq, and constrained by its progressively more radical Palestinian majority, its burgeoning refugee population, and the focus of international attention on the government's loss of control. Neither King Hussein's protestations nor his hurried travels can obscure the fact that Jordan is no longer capable of maintaining an independent policy.

King Hussein can neither justify Iraq's assault on Kuwait nor join his traditional allies in opposing the invasion. Even harder is it for him to accept the fact that finally the Hashemite kingdom's security depends on Israelis, with whom the king will not deal.

More than in all previous discussions, the war has also clarified the nature and role of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yasser Arafat's quick move to Baghdad and support for Saddam Hussein's assault on Kuwait have illuminated still more brightly his attitude toward violence and toward governments that have supported him, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The migration to Baghdad of dissident PLO terrorist leaders, including Abu Nidal, George Habash, Abu Ibrahim and Abul Abbas, has further clarified Iraq's relationship to terrorism, while in Washington the State Department announced somewhat breathlessly that Iraq had been re-added to the list of states that use terror as an instrument of policy.

Saudi Arabia also will never be the same. Saddam Hussein's trumpeted attack on the legitimacy of desert kingdoms will not bring down the Saudi regime, but it does not help this ruling elite, which is already the focus of so much envy and which has just lived through the trauma of accepting foreign troops on its soil.

Although American forces are beer-less and isolated, it will not prove possible to wholly insulate Saudi society against their presence. No one understands better than the Saudi ruling elite that the whole country is a carefully managed experiment in modernization that will not stand much uncontrolled contact with the non-Moslem world.

One consequence of the conflict is the new Saudi relationship with Egypt. This relationship promises to prove useful to both governments, each of which needs stability for its own reasons and neither of which could long survive a victory by Saddam Hussein.

Though the Saudi-Egyptian alliance strengthens both, their new alliance with Syria is more likely to benefit Syrian President Hafez Assad than to help anyone else.

Though more urbane than his Iraqi counterpart, Assad has quickly taken advantage of international concern over Iraq and Kuwait to try to complete Syria's conquest of Lebanon -- mounting a new offensive against the last strongholds of Lebanese independence. The elimination of an independent Lebanon is another of the unanticipated yet likely consequences of Iraq's move against Kuwait.

Obviously, consolidation of Assad's control of Lebanon offsets the reduced flow of Soviet arms to Syria and constitutes a new potential peril for Israel, whose position in the Middle Eastern correlation of forces has already suffered and seems likely to suffer more from the U.S. decision to supply new weapons and weapons systems to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Just a little war has already had major consequences for the balance of power. Before the end of this conflict, there will surely be more.

Will Saddam Hussein be permitted to complete the destruction of Kuwait before there is a resolution? Will this man who has repeatedly used force and the threat of force against subjects and neighbors be left with chemical and biological weapons, a half-ready nuclear capacity and a battle-hardened army? Will the neighbors who have had the courage and realism to stand against him be left to his mercies? How can they be protected against recurring aggression?

Secretary of State James Baker was clearly right to begin a discussion of the urgent need for regional collective security arrangements in this conflict-ridden region. Baker correctly discerned that the choices facing us in the post-Cold War world are not only globalism or anarchy, just as the choices facing the United States are not only overextension or isolationism. Regional security arrangements constitute a viable and promising alternative.

To be sure, the world has tried collective security before. At the global level, it failed for reasons that are not really too hard to understand. But in Europe, collective security at the regional level was a great success. The moral of the NATO story is not that America must take a leading role in regional security. It is that serious planning, integration and practice can deter aggression.

Could it work for the Gulf? Can historically divided Arab states organize a collective self-defense against a present or future Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadhafi? Can there be regional collective security for the Gulf that does not present a threat to Israel? What could be and should be the role of other countries, including the United States, that have an interest in stability and order in the Gulf?

These are questions to which responsible interested governments should be devoting attention even as they deal with the consequences of Saddam Hussein's invasion. It is a good thing James Baker has put these questions on the American agenda.