Jim Hoagland missed the point when he described the reluctance of Germany and other NATO members to get more involved in the Persian Gulf merely as a wish to avoid getting their noses bloodied {op-ed, Jan. 29}. The real source of the tension with the United States is that our allies see limitations in the ability of military force to solve crises like this one.

For the past 40 years, our role as a military counterweight to the Soviet Union has given us a leading role in European political affairs. Feeling the need for a unified front against the East bloc, our alliance partners deferred to our initiatives in NATO. Consequently, we grew accustomed to having our allies fall into line.

But one of the main assumptions of the Cold War was that the Soviet Union and its allies would behave rationally, avoid unnecessary risks and respect some basic norms of international behavior. The same cannot be said of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. His refusal to withdraw from Kuwait shows that he is willing to go to war with a militarily superior adversary. And by releasing oil into the Gulf, attacking civilian populations in Israel and using chemical weapons in Iran and Kurdistan, he has shown little restraint.

The political dynamics of the Gulf conflict are also more complex than the Cold War ideological confrontation. The religious conflicts of the Middle East are intensely emotional, and by attacking an Arab country, the U.N. coalition may galvanize existing anti-Western Arab sentiment. This would create problems for European countries with large Arab immigrant populations. And in the Mideast itself, the war could spur politics to a new level of chaos.

Discussions about the hesitance of our European allies have focused on Germany, whose skittishness is usually attributed to the post-World War II efforts to tame its militarism. But this doesn't explain the reluctance of other West European countries. Europe has been plagued by wars about territory and nationalist ambitions since long before World War II, and many Europeans have simply become convinced that war is a poor way to establish order.

By building an international consensus against aggression and revitalizing the United Nations, President Bush took positive steps toward a new world order. His haste in going to war, however, threatens to take a horrible toll in lives while adding to the instability of an already volatile region. Laying siege to an aggressor may take more time than an attack, but it would leave a more stable peace in the end.

-- David Shorr