THE ARAB FACTOR has been badly misunderstood in the debate about our strategic options and objectives in the Gulf. Those who advocate a strategy of siege have asserted that an assault would cause the United States to lose the precious Arab coalition that has coalesced around it, or that it would unleash a tidal wave of hostility against America that would sweep away the regimes we are trying to defend. If anything, a siege strategy entrails greater risks of complications.
The bulk of the Arab peoples don't know much about the business of developing options. They sensibly believe that if one ruler offends another, and the other ruler brings huge forces from far away and deploys them against the first, that other ruler is going to use his forces to strike.
As for the Arab governments, there are those who have major interests at stake and those whose interests in the crisis are insubstantial or derivative. The first group includes Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The second comprises all the other members of the Arab League; these have far deferred to the former group, which, except for Jordan, comprises the rich or the populous and powerful countries.
It is not hard to see why the directly affected Arab governmentlined up with the United States. They share a common perception of the implications of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait that is uncannily close to the basic American view.
They all believe that if Mr. Hussein could get away with annexing Kuwait by force, he would not only command the formidable combined oil resources of his own country and Kuwait; he would also be able to cow the Saudis and the emirates into doing his bidding, and would thus control more than half the world's oil reserves and oil trade. That would give him enormous financial means, great diplomatic leverage and vast access to instruments of military power. He would then be in a position to seek to unify or dominate the Arab countries of the region and the rest of the world, and control their fortunes and destiny.
Beyond that shared perception, the governments have particular views on the Iraqi challenge.
The Saudi government viewed Mr. Hussein's invasion of Kuwait as an ominous and mortal threat. The question of whether he also intended to march into Saudi Arabia is irrelevant, because the leading members of the Saudi ruling family realized that Mr. ++ Hussein had demonstrated that he had the nerve and capability to invade, and could do so whenever he chose.
It follows that for the Saudis, regardless of what verbal posture they may assume, the best solution to the crisis would be for the United States to quickly destroy or drastically reduce Iraq's military capabilities, and thus eliminate its power to threaten the kingdom. Any other solution would require elaborate arrangements and necessitate a ''permanent'' large-scale American military presence in the region, which would be detrimental to the authority and viability of the Saudi monarchy and other Gulf ruling families.
A siege may also be acceptable to the Saudis, but is less desirable. Although the decision to resort to American help was supported even by princes who formerly had opposed offers of American military aid in favor of an ''Arab-oriented strategy,'' and although the embryonic Saudi public opinion has voiced strong support for the government, the situation could change under the stresses of siege and the prolonged presence of large numbers of culturally alien foreign forces. A prompt peace settlement that did not truncate Iraq's military power would be acceptable only if a strategy of assault were impractical, or if the pursuit of a siege were to start generating domestic unrest or inter-Arab complications.
From Egypt's point of view the best solution would be to weaken but not destroy Saddam Hussein. His quest for predominance in the Arab world has clashed with Egypt's own historical aspirations, and threatened its relationship with the United States and Israel. By organizing Arab opposition to Iraq's action, Egypt sought to ward off that challenge, gain a position in the postwar Gulf order, achieve credit with its American ally and provider of aid, and entitle itself to reward from the oil-rich Arab countries.
President Hosni Mubarak would therefore prefer a negotiated settlement that would weaken Mr. Hussein by constraining him and causing him to lose face. To achieve that, Mr. Mubarak realizes a siege of limited duration may be necessary. However, he is known to mistrust the durability of the present public support for his policy. That means if a quick negotiated solution proves unattainable and it came down to a choice between prolonged, uncertain siege and promising quick assault, Mr. Mubarak would prefer the latter.