It is time for some straight talk about why 400,000 young Americans are in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and why in less than two weeks the United States may be once again at war.

We must first be clear about what the conflict is not about.If we must resort to military force to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, it will not be a war about democracy. While our goal is to restore Kuwait's legitimate government, it is hypocritical to suggest we hope to bring democracy to Kuwait. Except for Israel, there are no democracies in the Mideast, and there will be none in the foreseeable future.

Nor is intervention justified because Saddam is a cruel leader. President Bush has been criticized for equating him with Hitler. Whether he is that bad is irrelevant. He is bad enough.

Saddam's soldiers are murdering, torturing and raping defenseless Kuwaitis and pillaging their country. He violated international law by using chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds.

But if our policy were to punish cruel leaders, we would not be allied with Syria's President Hafez al-Assad. He ordered the massacre of 20,000 innocent people in the city of Hama in his own country, has supported international terrorism and presided over an army that has committed brutal atrocities in Lebanon. Both Syria and Iraq threaten our interests, but today Iraq poses a profoundly greater threat.

We are in the Persian Gulf for two major reasons.

First, Saddam has unlimited ambitions to dominate one of the most important strategic areas in the world. When Sen. Bob Dole said we were in the gulf for oil and Secretary of State James Baker said we were there for jobs, they were criticized for justifying our actions on purely selfish grounds. We should not apologize for defending our vital economic interests.

Had we not intervened, an international outlaw would today control more than 40 percent of the world's oil. We cannot allow Saddam to blackmail us and our allies into accepting his aggressive goals by giving him a choke hold on our oil lifeline.

Because he has oil he has the means to acquire the weapons he needs for aggression against his neighbors, eventually including nuclear weapons. If he succeeds in Kuwait he will attack others, and he will use whatever weapons he has to achieve his goals. If we do not stop him now, we will have to stop him later.

There is an even more important long-term reason for rolling back Iraq's aggression. We cannot be sure, as many believe and hope, that we are entering into a new, post-Cold-War era where armed aggression will no longer be an instrument of national policy.

But we can be sure that if Saddam profits from aggression, other potential aggressors in the world will be tempted to wage war against their neighbors.

If we succeed in getting Saddam out of Kuwait in accordance with the U.N. resolution and in eliminating his capacity to wage war in the future - which must be our goal if he refuses to get out peacefully and forces us to act militarily - we will have the credibility to deter aggression elsewhere without sending American forces.

Some critics argue that we should continue sanctions for as long as 18 months before resorting to force. They contend that even if sanctions do not work, Saddam will be so weakened that we will suffer fewer casualties if war does come.

They are wrong on three counts. First, while the Iraqi people suffer the effects of the sanctions, Saddam will direct his resources so that the Iraqi military will not.

Second, while the sanctions will weaken Iraq, they will weaken us even more, because of the political difficulty of holding our alliance together and maintaining support for our troop commitment at home.

Finally, the most the critics can claim is that it is possible that sanctions might work. It is certain that military force will work. The stakes are too high to risk failure.