THE DRUMS of war are still beating in the Persian Gulf, and before it is too late, President Bush should speak more clearly to the Arab world -- not to the kings and sheikhs and presidents of the various Arab regimes, but to the Arab people themselves.

The reason it is so important for Bush to speak directly to the Arab world is that the perceptions of the United States that are formed now, as the gulf crisis heads toward a climax, may last for a generation -- and they are likely to condition how millions of Arabs view the United States and its aims in the confrontation with Iraq.

Thus far, the United States has failed to make clear to ordinary Arabs what its aims are in the gulf. As a result, the Arab world is full of rumors and theories about American actions, spread by cynics and conspiracy-mongers. These theories are widely believed, and they are creating an undercurrent of support for Saddam Hussein that may, in the end, work to undermine moderate regimes and Western interests in the whole Middle East.

Here are some examples of what you might hear in the streets and cafes and sitting rooms of the Arab world:

"The crisis is America's fault. Saddam Hussein would never have dared to invade Kuwait if the United States had made clear beforehand that it was prepared to oppose him."

This theory depends heavily on the transcript of the last pre-invasion meeting between Saddam and the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, released by the Iraqis. Glaspie's statement to Saddam that the United States regarded the Iraq-Kuwait dispute as an Arab problem was widely viewed in the Arab world as a "green light" for Saddam.

But why did America give the green light? This theory goes on to assume that the reason was to induce Iraq to invade Kuwait -- and thereby open the way for American occupation of the Saudi oil fields (which the Arabs believe the United States has coveted for the past 20 years.)

"Israel is just waiting for a chance to enter the conflict and occupy Jordan. Then Israel will shift the Palestinians from the West Bank to the East Bank and finish the Palestinian problem once and for all."

This theory reflects that widespread view among the Arab masses that Israel pulls the strings in the Middle East, and that what Israel ultimately wants is to expel the Palestinians from the occupied territories.

"This is a war against Moslems. The crusaders are back, not only in Jerusalem but in Mecca and Medina!"

To a many Moslem fundamentalists, it seems obvious that history is repeating itself. The new crusaders are defiling the three holiest shrines of Islam. Like the crusaders of old, they have come to rob the East of its riches.

Common to all three coffee-house theories is a deep suspicion of American motives.

If Saddam is really the problem, wonders the ordinary Arab, then why don't the Americans just finish him off -- and save the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives that could otherwise be wasted. But no. Destroying Saddam Hussein is not the real aim. America's goal is to destroy Iraq itself -- economically and militarily -- in order to control the Mideast's oil and install Israel as the uncontested superpower in the region. These musings of the Arab man in the street may sound foolish to American ears. But they need to be answered clearly -- by President Bush.

I know, from personal experience, how seriously America's words are taken in the Arab world.

In August 1982, I personally carried to Yasser Arafat in Beirut a summary of President Reagan's plan to resolve the Palestinian problem, which became public the next month. Included in my message was an American pledge to guarantee the safety of Palestinian civilians in Lebanon if the PLO withdrew from Beirut. Based in part on those American commitments, the PLO left.

The massacres at Sabra and Shatilla came several weeks later. The killing only stopped when American Embassy officials went to the scene and pressured Israel and its Lebanese Christian allies to stop. I carried another message to Arafat, pledging that the United States would never let it happen again, and that U.S. Marines would return to protect Palestinian and Shiite areas in Beirut.

The Marines were greeted with rice and flowers when they entered the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut. That had changed a few months later to bullets and bombs. Why? Because ordinary people -- the man in the street in those Shiite neighborhoods -- came to believe that the Americans had broken their promises again. Lebanese militiamen, wearing the uniforms of the Lebanese Army but really still fighting a sectarian war, were crossing U.S. Marine checkpoints at night to kidnap Palestinian and Shiite activists. By April of 1983, 1,200 of them had disappeared from the area supposedly protected by the Americans.

Discovering what had happened to those 1,200 missing people was one of the reasons that the CIA's legendary Mideast expert, Robert Ames, came to Beirut in April 1983. It was his misfortune to be in the American Embassy was it was destroyed by a car bomb on April 23. Among those killed were Ames and Ken Haas, the CIA station chief who helped stopped the Sabra-Shatilla massacre. The tragedy of that day was that the best of the Americans died, while trying to save the people who killed them.

Arab suspicion of the United States takes root among people who know only the rumors and lies about the United States. If President Bush truly hopes to build his New World Order, he will need more than the Arab kings and sheikhs and presidents. He will need the Arab people. He should begin talking to them now.