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A lonely decision awaits Bush

This week's joint news conference by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and French President Francois Mitterrand presented a clear picture of the cracks appearing in the United Nations' front against Iraq at a time when a decision whether to use force is getting closer and closer. It was none too soon when a day later, Secretary of State James Baker announced his new swing around the Persian Gulf and Europe, the better, we suppose, to make a military option more credible to Saddam Hussein and prepare his listeners for the possibility that we and they will have to fight.

In view of Gorbachev's statement here Monday that force would be "unacceptable," Baker's meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on Nov. 9 should be crucial. There may, in fact, be an argument inside the Kremlin with Shevardnadze on one side and Gorbachev's peace envoy, Yevgeny Primakov, on the other. Shevardnadze says one thing one day, Primakov something else the next.

Gorbachev himself advised Hussein not to count on a split in the U.N. alliance against him, but even as the Soviet leader said it, cracks were evident.

While Gorbachev was reporting "some signs" that Iraq was beginning to heed the United Nations, Mitterrand could still see no other logical outcome than an armed conflict.

While Gorbachev was saying that Hussein had to be listened to, President Bush was still comparing him to Hitler. While Primakov was talking with Hussein, the leaders of the European Community in Rome were urging no direct contacts except through the United Nations.

And while Gorbachev was saying force was "unacceptable," Bush and Baker have been rattling their swords.

Finally, Gorbachev's suggestions of an "inter-Arab meeting" could be suspected of encouraging those willing to see Hussein walk away from Kuwait with a face-saving (and strategic) island or oil field.

All this may be no more than a game of hard cop and soft cop. But more likely, it is a sign of confusion that could turn into real differences if it hasn't already.

If Hussein doesn't back down, sooner or later there will have to be a decision about whether to fight. And it will probably be a very lonely decision made first of all by George Bush.

The decision touches the deepest feelings, and contradictions, in the American soul and mind.

Attacking the Iraqi forces in Kuwait, and perhaps beyond, some argue, will only be the beginning of another American Vietnam with long casualty lists, tying down U.S. forces for years, dividing the nation and ultimately ending in defeat.

Furthermore, the argument goes, American lives will be spent trying to restore corrupt and outdated Kuwaiti rulers and to protect the oil supplies of Japanese and Europeans unwilling to fight themselves. Is it the business of the United States to be the world's police officer?

There is something in all of these arguments, but also counterarguments _ practical, political and moral.

Kuwait is nothing like Vietnam. A desert is not a jungle where the enemy can hide. Military analysts claim the war could be as short as it is brutal. But yes, it's probably true that an American attack on Iraq, even under a U.N. umbrella, will become another Arab myth of Western imperialism that will live for years.

Politically, however, U.S. influence is likely to be diminished or dead in the strategic area where vital American interests are at stake if Hussein is allowed to benefit from his invasion. He would emerge as an Arab hero ready for more; America's Arab allies would be discredited, Israel dangerously tempted to take matters into its own hands.

Morally, no argument can be made for letting Hussein get away with his invasion. America may not want or be able to police the whole world, but having taken a stand on principle and then abandoning it is likely to be seen by others and felt by many Americans as a betrayal of those principles we sometimes support only when convenient.

Maybe sooner than later, the president is going to decide among the arguments listed above, and Americans whether to support him, damned perhaps if they do decide to go to war, damned again if they don't.

In the best of all possible worlds, sanctions against Iraq would work, but they give few signs of working yet. Or Washington's sword-rattling would work. Yet Hussein may be able to sit there indefinitely, while the United States and the United Nations cannot. Resolve will eventually crumble.

In the next best of worlds, Americans would fight only with support from its allies and U.N. cover. Baker's mission, beginning Saturday, will tell us more, but again the first lonely, unenviable decision to spend American lives is likely to be that of an American president.

The joy and tears when the French hostages came home from Iraq this week remind us of the day American hostages came home from Iran, but this time there was a touching sadness for those, above all Americans and British, left behind.

Hostage after former French hostage insisted something be done to free them also.

This does not fit the stereotype of selfish, self-centered French people. This time also, the feeling grows that the French are telling the truth when Mitterrand says there was no bargaining to get their own hostages out first.