I was as embarrassed as the next American to see the secretary of state and secretary of treasury flying around the world rattling a tin cup for our Persian Gulf deployment. But must this really be another excuse for yet another chorus from the decline-of-America school?

Professor Paul Kennedy, a splendid historian and a one-note bore, finds in the sands of Saudi Arabia yet more proof of American decline. Is George Bush really Philip IV of Spain project-ing military power not long before Spain, overextended and sagging, collapsed? Is America really Britain of the '50s?The Baker-Brady fund-raising mission exposed the imbalance between America's geopolitical reach and its resources. But our difficulties are not a result of what Kennedy calls "imperial overstretch" - devoting too much of our resources to foreign adventures that ultimately exhaust the economic base at home.

We now spend 5.4 percent of gross national product on defense, a little more than half what we spent under John Kennedy, when the United States was at its economic and geopolitical apogee.

The administration's own plans have us on a trajectory to go to 4 percent by 1995. That will be our lowest defense spending since our pre-Pearl Harbor days of splendid isolation.

The reason we beg the Sheik of Abu Dhabi and Korea's captains of industry for help in the gulf is not imperial overstretch but domestic understretch, reasons entirely self-inflicted.

It is the low-tax ideology of the 1980s, not the cost of foreign adventures, that created an economy of debt, public and private, unrivaled in our history. That and an insatiable American desire for yet higher standards of living without paying any of the cost.

For example: Ecological goods are today in high demand. It may be reasonable for a society to prefer the spotted owl over timber workers. It may be reasonable to prefer caribou over arctic oil. It may even be reasonable to shut down a new $5 billion nuclear-power plant on Long Island to soothe local anti-nuclear hysteria.

Fine. Ecological goods are as valuable as any other goods. But they are not free. If you must have them but won't pay for them, then you must - as we do - borrow and borrow.

Are we in economic difficulty because we are too martial a country? Quite the contrary. Like all borrowers, we have become too soft and decadent and unwilling to sacrifice.

In President Bush's address to Congress, he called on the nation to stand up to Iraq and put its financial house in order. He then proposed the following tax changes: tax breaks for IRAs, tax breaks for R&D, tax breaks for family savings, tax breaks for inner cities, tax breaks for oil drillers, tax breaks for capital gains. Not exactly a Spartan message.

It is obvious we need to strengthen our economy and reduce our indebtedness. We might then not have to go around the world fund-raising for our geopolitical endeavors. But it is absurd to imply that the road to solvency is to, say, abandon El Salvador, close our bases in the Philippines, or get out of the gulf.

There may be other good reasons for doing all of these. But doing them as a way to get to the root of our economic problems is nonsense.

The way to get to the root of our economic problems is better schools, better bridges, better work habits; more taxes, fewer luxuries (ecological and otherwise); and cuts in welfare state entitlements. Abandoning our geopolitical role will not enrich us. It will merely diminish us.

When confronted with the reality of America's relatively small defense spending, the declinists will often retreat to a secondary position.

Well, they say, it is not that we are allocating too much money to foreign adventures but too much national attention. Glory in the gulf, for example, is distracting attention from urgent domestic problems.

The premise here is that there is some kind of Law of Conservation of National Attention. More nonsense. After all, in the '40s, '50s and '60s, when we were extremely preoccupied with establishing a structure of containment, we were simultaneously establishing the pre-eminent economy in the world.

America's greatest economic successes were achieved at precisely the time when America was preoccupied with foreign affairs, foreign alliances, even foreign wars.

At heart, the declinists echo the isolationist belief that foreign entanglements ultimately enervate the spirit, corrupt our virtues and bring on ruin. If we could only be rid of them, all would be set right.

The problem is that in a world of Saddams, if we shed our unique superpower role we might end up with no economy - no open sea lanes, no prospering trading partners, no reasonably priced oil - at all.

Foreign entanglements are indeed a burden. But they are also a necessity. We are, like Britain before us, a maritime, commercial republic. We need an open and safe world in order to thrive. The cost of ensuring such a world, 5.4 percent of GNP and falling, is hardly exorbitant. And hardly the cause of American impoverishment.