Driven by growing public unrest over budget deficits, Congress had been looking with fond hope at a "peace dividend" - to be obtained by cutting the once-untouchable armed forces budget. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has made a mockery of the word "peace," yet despite that new set of circumstances, Congress hasn't given up on slashing military spending.

Even with confrontation in the Middle East still growing, the U.S. House of Representatives last week moved ahead with its version of a smaller defense budget - a $283 billion package that is $24 billion less than what President Bush requested last January.Hacking away left and right at the Pentagon budget in a desperate search for dollars is not the best way to deal with U.S. defense needs. For example, the measure contains only $1 billion for the Middle East buildup. That is a mere down payment.

In his budget proposal earlier this year - before the Iraq invasion - Bush had wanted to reduce the U.S. military by as much as 25 percent by the mid-to-late 1990s to reflect changes in what is being called the post-Cold War era.

Slashing 25 percent from America's military forces would mean taking 442,000 men and women from active duty ranks and retiring more than 100 Navy ships and several Air Force fighter wings.

But the House's far more ambitious budget cuts have proceeded much the same as if Iraq had not invaded Kuwait. Removing $24 billion from the Pentagon budget amounts to three times as much in one year as the administration wanted over five years.

Some of the cuts can be justified. The House slashed about $2.4 billion from Bush's request of $4.7 billion for the Strategic Defense Initiative, the missile-defense system commonly known as "Star Wars.

The remaining $2.3 billion will still fund a reasonable research effort. One can argue about the need for SDI based on the Soviet threat or lack of threat, but to argue - as some did in the House - that SDI is needed as a defense against Iraq is to take leave of reality.

All the same, wielding the budget ax on U.S. military needs to be done carefully for several reasons.

First, any cutbacks ought to be tied to similar reductions by the Soviet Union, rather than based on mere promises by the Kremlin. The Soviets are still the world's other military superpower.

Second, even if the Cold War is over, the United States is probably going to need more mobile, quick-hitting conventional forces to deal with regional conflicts where U.S. interests are threatened - a lesson clearly shown in the Middle East crisis.

Finally, reducing the vast military budget will have significant impact on the U.S. economy and ought to be done in moderate steps.

Yes, let's cut the military budget. But let's do it in such a way that protects both national security and the American economy. The world is still a dangerous place in many ways.