A multinational army and navy and air force, made up chiefly of U.S. ships, planes and troops, is facing a huge Iraqi military force that has invaded Kuwait. No one knows if it will come to war, although the possibility is very real.

But even before that issue is decided, many Arab states in the region are asking themselves some crucial questions: "How did we get into this mess?" and "How can we preserve the peace in the future?"Out of these questions is coming a new willingness to face reality instead of relying so heavily on the myth of "Arab brotherhood," which assumed that one Arab state would not make war on another. Obviously, that is not true and never has been, except as an ideal.

The Persian Gulf states have been very weak militarily - unable, as it turns out, to defend their vast oil wealth. Now, they want to form a well-equipped regional defense force even after Iraq withdraws from Kuwait. They also are emerging from their former insularity against the outside world. They want peace in the region to be an international responsibility as well.

The gulf states would like to have a multinational peacekeeping force stationed on the Iraq-Kuwait border to separate the two countries. That might be possible if the oil-rich Arab nations were willing to foot the bill.

Even more surprising, many of the oil kingdoms are quietly lobbying for the once-unthinkable - a large and permanent U.S. military presence in the area, mainly expanded naval forces. And those Arab leaders are ready to offer permanent facilities for U.S. use.

While the new awareness of the need for self-defense and perhaps a major role for multinational troops is welcome in the Persian Gulf, the United States may want to think twice about being drawn militarily deeper into the Middle East quagmire on a long-term basis.

While America clearly wants peace and stability in the area to protect vital world oil supplies, a heavy U.S. military presence could exacerbate anti-American feelings. Much will depend on how the confrontation with Iraq ends and what condition the Middle East is in afterwards.

If the United States goes to war and crushes Saddam - at whatever cost - there will be an inevitable backlash in the Islamic world against a Western superpower destroying an Arab government. No matter how much Saddam deserves it, such a conflict would tend to be seen as another humiliation for Arabs.

If Saddam's armies leaves Kuwait peacefully, a large military force will still be needed to protect the oil kingdoms from a powerful and unpredictable dictator. But it would be best if that force were chiefly Arab in nature with perhaps some bolstering by United Nations troops.

There is an additional problem. Better-armed, better-trained Arab gulf nations would be a distinct worry to Israel. The Israelis fear that the Arabs might be tempted at some point to turn against them with advanced U.S.-supplied weaponry. It wouldn't be the first time that U.S. weapons were used for purposes not intended by the supplier.

However the Persian Gulf crisis eventually turns out, the consequences are going to be difficult for everyone for a long time.