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Give patience a chance

When the United States rushed to the defense of Saudi Arabia, it was for fear of an imminent invasion by Iraq. With some 240,000 Americans now poised for battle, Operation Desert Shield is a success. Saddam Hussein has been careful to respect the line that America drew in the sand. Too careful, perhaps. Even if his only goal is to keep what he has already conquered, the Iraqi aggressor knows it will improve his standing among the Arab masses if the United States can be made to draw first blood. So he waits, and taunts the American president with his patience.

Is George Bush so headstrong that he'll take the bait? The 100,000 additional troops he's sending to the Persian Gulf are unneeded for defense. Their only plausible mission is to attack. In case anyone misunderstood, the president and Secretary of

State James Baker made the threat explicit this week. "And let no one doubt," Baker said. "We will not rule out a possible use of force if Iraq continues to occupy Kuwait."

If the United States did so, it would be in the absence of any present consensus on the part of our situational Arab allies or the U.N. Security Council, which has authorized force only to enforce the trade embargo against Iraq. It would also be without any sense of approval from Congress or the American people, who are still awaiting Mr. Bush's answers to several profound questions:

What makes Kuwait worth the sacrifice of American lives at the same time Washington smiles indulgently on Syria's increasingly bloody hegemony in Lebanon? If the difference is oil, which Kuwait has and Lebanon doesn't, why can't we and our allies get more serious about conservation and alternative energy sources? The less we need Kuwait's oil, the less it will profit Hussein to hold on to it. Granted that aggression is evil and that Hussein's ambitions must be checked, but why can't the trade embargo be given time to force him out of Kuwait?

Though the administration denies conflict is imminent, it appears to be building a case on reported atrocities against the Kuwaiti people, the plight of foreigners held hostage in Kuwait and Iraq proper, and the continuing indignity to the diplomatic missions that Hussein is trying to starve out of Kuwait. The White House does not explain how it would help the Kuwaitis or the hostages to involve them in a shooting war.

Even with the best of intentions it may come to war eventually. Saddam Hussein is cruel and amoral. His arsenal already boasts large stocks of poison gas, and his achieving nuclear capability is thought to be only a matter of time. Any outcome that rewarded his aggression would leave him securely in power, a continuing threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East and to the peace of the world at large.

There is a towering moral obligation to deal with him peacefully, however, so long as that is possible. Did Mr. Bush expect economic sanctions to work wonders overnight?

"It may take 10 years," notes Rep. Sam Gibbons, one of the wiser members of Congress, "but that's better than bringing 10,000 people home in body bags . . ." It has been barely 10 weeks since the U.N. Security Council authorized military action to enforce the sanctions.

Mr. Bush's saber-rattling may reflect a belief that the American people don't have much patience for a long standoff. On the other hand, it could be nothing more than relatively harmless pre-election jingoism.

The problem with rattling the saber, as the British and others are trying to tell him, is that eventually you have to use it or the other fellow stops taking you seriously. Millions of people have lost their lives to such miscalculations.

The president needs to address the American people. It is long past time for him to tell them _ calmly, candidly and without slogans _ precisely what is our interest in the Persian Gulf, why young Americans are already dying there for it, and above all why patience is still the policy we should pursue.

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