We learn in school, church and synagogue -- and later it's drummed into us by politicians, especially at national party conventions -- that America is unique because it's the world's biggest and best democracy.

Given the fact that we still practice various forms of discrimination, there is no pretense that our democracy is pure or complete. Still, it should be good enough to protect us from one-man rule. The voice of the people, guaranteed by the Constitution, underscored by the Bill of Rights and exercised through Congress, is supposed to protect us from arbitrary decisions affecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But reality, as the shooting war gets underway in the Persian Gulf, is something different. We may have been kidding ourselves about democracy. The decisions that took the United States into war -- a conflict that could alter the global economy and America's place in it -- have been made primarily by one man, the president of the United States.

Nothing said here is intended to forgive or condone the brutal nature of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. The civilized world, led by President Bush, responded to that unconscionable act in a proper way.

It immediately blocked Saddam from sweeping up Saudi Arabia as well, which would have given him a stranglehold on the world's oil supplies. The United Nations launched an embargo on Iraqi oil, put trade sanctions into effect that crushed Saddam's economic lifelines and demanded that he get out of Kuwait.

It was a correct, effective and totally moral response -- one in which citizens can take pride. Bush got -- and deserved -- the principal credit for fashioning an international network of containment against Saddam.

But then Bush unilaterally changed the strategy immediately after the November election and, in doing so, irrevocably set the nation on a course toward war when he doubled the commitment of American troops. To this day, Bush has never explained why he shifted from a defensive to an offensive stance.

There was no evidence that Saddam's ability to affect the world economy had changed overnight. In fact, the global supply of oil was augmented so quickly by the Saudis that the initial, panicky spike in prices had abated. Nor did anyone say that our troops already there were in jeopardy and needed support.

Then, on Nov. 29, under pressure from Bush, the United Nations General Assembly set an arbitrary Jan. 15 deadline for Saddam to exit from Kuwait. In his address to the nation Wednesday night after ordering the first attack on Iraq, Bush said "the world could wait no longer." That's something he can assert but will never be able to prove.

Bush's decision to add massively to troop strength was strikingly reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson's in Vietnam in 1965. True, Bush didn't lie about his intention: He just didn't mention it during the campaign.

Some speculate that the president was motivated by a feeling of personal rejection during the congressional elections, which produced a need to restore his image or ego. In the aftermath of his reneging on the 1988 campaign pledge of "no new taxes," some Republican candidates did not want to appear on the same platform with Bush.

But it really doesn't matter whether there were petty or substantive motivations for his 180-degree turn from a defensive to an offensive posture in the gulf. The critical point is that no one in authority challenged what amounted to an implicit, but real, declaration of war. And for that, the president not only had no congressional authorization, he never even consulted the leadership of Congress (of either party). Those troops were not to be rotated and, as we now see, they were to be part of an attack force. No one stepped forward to say, "Hey, wait a minute, let's make sure we want to do this."

But I don't blame Bush alone: The democratic (small "d") process failed because leaders of the Democratic (large "D") Party waited until last weekend to mount a challenge to his strategy. In my view, Congress abdicated its responsibility: It didn't seek an explanation or explore whether there had been internal dissenting voices, as it should have done early on. Thus, Bush was able to exercise power without the checks visualized by the Constitution.

Still, a shift of three votes in the Senate last weekend would have deprived Bush of a blank check. His war-making authorization survived only because many (who down deep wanted to give sanctions a chance to work) feared to register a vote of "no confidence" in the president of the United States at a time of crisis.

I empathize with their anguish and probably would have voted with the majority, in the tradition of Stephen Decatur's famous 1816 toast: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong."

But I would have been angry to have been so cornered. Recall G. K. Chesterton's observation in 1901: " 'My country right or wrong' is a thing no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.' "