In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War -- yes, that war, remember? -- India's military chief of staff reportedly drew this lesson: "Never fight the U.S. without nuclear weapons."

Recalling that perhaps apocryphal remark in a recent speech, Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the influential House Armed Services Committee, drew a similarly somber lesson from the conflict. Wars are more likely, not less, to occur in the new post-Soviet world, he said -- and, equally paradoxically, the threat of nuclear conflict has increased.

Aspin reasons that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, while they are events that hold great potential for good, also present major new risks. For nearly half a century, the two nuclear superpowers were mutually driven by policies of nuclear deterrence. Together, they kept a lid on the spread of nuclear weapons and on risk of escalation to total war. No longer is that the case.

Now, with the Soviet empire disintegrating, the world faces the threat that nuclear weapons and knowledge of how to produce them could slip out of the former Soviet territory and fall into the wrong hands.

Therein lies the link with the gulf war and with some military minds concluding that the only way for small nations such as Iraq to combat the United States is to have nuclear weapons.

As Aspin puts it: "Only mass destruction weapons, particularly nuclear ones, can offset huge U.S. advantages in conventional military power. Nukes in the hands of thugs like Saddam Hussein won't give rogue leaders the wherewithal to win a fight against the United States, but they could be used as instruments of terror against American forces and allies."

Saddam and the gulf war thus become a symbol of what Aspin called perhaps the most demanding challenge of the new post-Soviet era: "a rogue power with mass destruction weapons and a strong bent for terrorism."

Aspin's points are disturbingly valid. They are reinforced by reports this week from U.N. officials that Iraq has admitted making large purchases of uranium enrichment materials before the war so it could produce four or five nuclear weapons each year.

Americans and other world powers thus have all the more reason to pause on this anniversary of the gulf war and to contemplate lessons learned and not learned. That is not happening.

Americans, from President Bush down, are immersed in domestic problems. The gulf war seems like ancient and irrelevant history.

When Americans do stop to think about the war, increasing numbers are wondering what it was all about and what was accomplished.

A year later, long after memories of massive patriotic victory parades have faded, Saddam remains in power, still dangerous, still a threat to Mideast stability. Noble talk about fighting for democratic principles and ensuring a new and better world order notwithstanding, Kuwait remains an example of a despotic fiefdom. Mideast peace prospects have brightened, but the region remains a tinderbox and the specter of war still hovers there.

A year ago, the Bush administration repeatedly cited oil as a reason for its massive military buildup and ultimately the war. But despite warnings that Iraq posed a grave threat by imperiling the industrial world's access to oil, America's dependence on foreign oil continues. In fact, it has increased. On Wednesday, the American Petroleum Institute reported that the nation's oil production in 1991 fell to its lowest level in 40 years.

Americans exulted in the superb performance of their military, but a year later, the armed services are undergoing a major "downsizing," with announced forced reductions of as much as one-fourth of the defense establishment.

Meanwhile, the nation battles the ravages of at least a harsh recession. Substantially more than one-third of Americans even believe that full-fledged depression is gripping the nation, according to a Times Mirror survey made public yesterday.

While Americans turn inward, they also are turning on the president cheered so lustily a year ago. In the glow of victory, Bush soared to the highest approval ratings ever recorded for a president. His plunge in recent months also has been among the greatest ever, and the national mood has swung sharply from soaring optimism to brooding pessimism.

A presidential election year has dawned, and Americans face an important question: Can this nation recapture the optimism and sense of purpose briefly experienced during the gulf war and apply them to problems at home?