During a two-hour meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House on Nov. 14, President Bush laid out for congressional leaders an economic argument for America's military presence in the Persian Gulf.

"Can we afford to have Iraq's stranglehold on free world and Third World economies?" Bush asked, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) recalled from notes he made that day.

It is a far different argument than that made by Woodrow Wilson during World War I when he declared that the United States was going to war to "make the world safe for democracy." Nor does it have quite the patriotic ring of a fight to curb the evils of communism or Nazism.

The Bush administration has invoked many reasons for the presence of almost one-quarter of a million American troops in the Persian Gulf, from a generalized need to oppose aggression to a specific condemnation of Saddam Hussein as a despot and terrorist bent on obtaining nuclear weapons.

But more so than in any modern call to arms, economic considerations have been given as an essential rationale for U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf. More than the usual declarations of defending freedom, the reasons now are cruder and more down-to-earth: a need to safeguard oil supplies, to protect economic power and to defend living standards and economic well-being.

Bush's comments to the legislators were similar to statements by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who has justified the U.S. military buildup as the defense of American jobs, and by Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, who said in August that "placing the control of so much of the world's oil production in the hands of a man who is bent on military solutions to the world's problems" was unacceptable.

On Thursday, at a meeting of the Association of Bank Holding Companies, Bush repeated the economic theme. Citing Eastern European and African countries, Bush said, "See what this, what the result of Saddam Hussein's aggression is doing to them. And then, add to it what's happened in the United States, and that whole economic side of this equation comes much more clearly into focus."

On Friday, Bush added, "Those who feel that there is no down side to waiting months and months must consider the devastating damage being done every day to the fragile economies of those countries that can afford it the least. ...

"We're dealing with a dangerous dictator ... who desires to control one of the world's key resources ...," he said.

The economic justification has confused and disturbed many Americans, though.

"We're more comfortable as a country {with} Woodrow Wilson and Dean Acheson," said energy consultant Daniel Yergin, citing the wartime president and the secretary of state in the Truman administration who helped craft the policy of containing communism.

"We have trouble seeing things as economic interests, especially when the subject is oil, which is overladen with so many suspicions," said Yergin, who has written a history of the Cold War and is author of the forthcoming book, "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power."

"It is not a war ... to defeat Hitler. That's what makes it such a confused debate," said William G. Hyland, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, who served in the CIA and as an assistant to President Gerald Ford for national security. "It is a new world. The enemy is not communism or Russia. Even in Vietnam it was clearer.

"No politician wants to say that he's going to war over oil. That is a sure loser," Hyland said. "But it is not such a strange concept. After all, we fought a revolution over tea. It sounds like such a crude Marxist concept. But certainly defending economic interests is not new."

Magnitude of Interests The magnitude of those interests is clear. Even though world oil production has climbed back to pre-invasion levels, fears of a supply disruption have pushed up prices by $10 a barrel -- or 25 cents a gallon for gasoline -- slowing U.S. economic growth by more than a percentage point and boosting inflation by nearly 2 percentage points. The slowdown will cut across all races and income groups and will hit jobs and industries not directly tied to energy.

High oil prices over a sustained period would have harsher effects on developing countries. Because alternatives, like fuel efficiency, coal and nuclear power, take a long time to develop and implement, a cutoff in Saudi and other Persian Gulf oil supplies could have an even more dire effect on the U.S. economy, where imports account for about half of the nation's oil needs.

Nor is it a simple matter to make a country -- even a rich one like the United States -- independent of imported oil and of the geopolitics of oil. Almost half of the total energy consumed in the United States is petroleum based, as is well over 90 percent of transportation energy.

Even if the technology were easily at hand, it would take enormous sums to retool factories, utilities and automobile and truck fleets to become independent of imported oil. And it certainly would take more time than the current gulf crisis might allow.

For the time being, then, the possibility of turning to alternative sources of energy does not offer an easy way around the question of how the price of oil should be measured against the price of a war in American lives. It is the type of question the United States rarely confronts this plainly and creates a linkage in the minds of some experts between economic considerations and larger issues.

"Since the development of Middle East oil after World War II, no single power looked like it would have hegemony over Persian Gulf oil," Yergin noted. If Iraq were to gain that stature, Yergin said, "over time, countries would pay tribute to this oil power and Saddam Hussein would have the money and power to stage the next increase in his military power."

It is a theme echoed by Donald Kagan, dean of Yale College and an expert on the Peloponnesian War, who said, "I don't think we're really talking about economics. We're talking about power politics, and economics is merely the vehicle by which people express power. ...

"The whole world can adjust to higher oil prices. We wouldn't have to go to war," Kagan said. "But the fact that Hussein affects things like oil means he has more political power."

Saddam could use that power to make further demands on Saudi Arabia, Israel and industrialized countries.

"The Saudis would be looking down his gun barrel. And we would be asking for an Arab-Israeli war in five years in which nuclear weapons would probably be used by both sides," Foreign Affair's Hyland said. "The issue is: Can we tolerate the continued existence of Saddam Hussein with his military machine intact?"

Kagan added that Saddam's demands for higher oil prices and his claim to a piece of the Kuwaiti oil fields are not important, "no more than Hitler's demands had to do with ethnic questions. He was a dangerous guy who had dangerous power."

Morality of Economics The morality of a war for economic reasons was questioned by Michael Walzer of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., author of the book, "Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustration," who said that he supports the military venture in the Persian Gulf, but not on economic grounds.

Walzer said a better case for American intervention in the gulf could be made by invoking collective security and punishment of Saddam's aggression -- another argument that Bush has made in the past.

He said, "In terms of American history, the analogy is to Korea," where the United States fought to defend South Korea from North Korean aggression.

"I think that was a just war, although we got overambitious and tried not only to resist but to change the nature of the aggressor regime," he said.

But Walzer rejected economic considerations as a factor. He said the administration has blurred the issue with its emphasis on preserving the American way of life through protecting oil.

"If our lives depended on it, oil would be a good reason. But our lives don't depend on it, only a certain way of living," Walzer said. "We can change the way we live without changing our way of life in the deeper sense."