ALL OF the hundreds of American hostages in Kuwait who chose to leave are now apparently out. Ambassador Nathaniel Howell, who had valiantly stayed in the American Embassy to tend to his countrymen's interests, got back to Washington on Friday. These people did not endure the atrocities and losses that Iraqis have inflicted upon the Kuwaiti population. But they incurred uncommon hardship and risk in the four months of their captivity, and their evacuation makes it possible for the whole nation to breath a sigh of relief.

Their testimony brings into sharper focus the picture of the Iraqis' killing, looting, destroying, depopulation and repopulation (with their own nationals) of Kuwait. It is now possible to learn a great deal more about the continuing acts of Kuwaiti resistance to this brutal occupation. The most affecting stories are surely the accounts of repeated and extreme personal risks that individual Kuwaitis took to hide or safeguard Americans and other hostages and to keep them in supplies. Not even the threat of a death penalty kept these Kuwaitis from reaching out to vulnerable Americans.

It is repeatedly argued in the American debate over Gulf policy that Kuwait, not being a democracy, does not really deserve the cost and exertion and possible sacrifice that a war to liberate the place from the Iraqis would entail. This argument has often taken another familiar turn as well: as the months have gone by the portrayal of the Kuwaiti regime and society has progressively gotten darker and worse, a distortion that has rendered the place as monstrous and its population as a greedy, retrograde bunch who never had or cared for independence anyway. This is the way it always works in these arguments. Given a few more months we will probably be being told that we are "on the wrong side." Saddam Hussein will be beginning to emerge as a thwarted social reformer whom we (who else?) have driven to his acts of fury, poor guy.

The hostages' story of Iraqi depredations and Kuwaiti resistance should do something to right this incipient distortion. It has been a staple of postwar American political argument for left and right to downplay the human rights and democratic shortcomings of their own preferred overseas regimes and to exaggerate those of the other side.

But there is more to it than this, more to it than merely restoring a realistic picture of Kuwait, which is neither the hideous police state emerging in unfriendly literature nor anything like the kind of government or society we in this country would wish it to be. The question that arises is whether we wish to formalize invitations to aggression by drawing up an A-list of suitable democracies and a B-list of everyone else and letting it be known that only the As will strike us as being worth defending or helping if they are attacked. Would we not also have to get into fine policy choices concerning whether even A-list countries (such as, say, Israel) that pursued activities of which we disapprove had lost their claim to our support as well?

Yes, this overstates the current tendency and reduces it to the absurd. And no, the hostages' moving stories do not amount to justification for immediate armed assault in behalf of Kuwait. But it is important to try to stay with the messy and generally ambiguous facts of a situation, such as the one this country is now in and to remember that world stability hinges on condemnation of aggression of the kind that has occurred in the Gulf. Blame-the-victim is no more worthy as foreign policy than it is when invoked on the domestic front.