Overkill against Saddam Hussein as a Hitlerite madman thirsting for world conquest endows the Iraqi strongman with powers he does not possess, adds to his mystique and reinforces his Arab nationalist claims as successor to Saladin, who expelled the crusaders in 1291.

President Bush a year ago issued no clarion call for the world to isolate China after the Tiananmen Square massacre but instead sent secret emissaries to Beijing to shore up relations with his old Chinese friends who ordered the slaughter. With Saddam, Bush bristles against ''brutal, naked aggression,'' demands that the world ''isolate'' Iraq and privately explores ways to get rid of him altogether.

Domestic aggression against pro-democracy dissidents obviously does not carry anything like the stigma of cross-border invasions. But critics worry that the verbal counterattack is making the Iraqi dictator a hero in his own country, where many hate him, and throughout the entire Arab world. Anti-Western Arab nationalism has greater appeal than independence for the oil-rich Kuwaiti emirate.

Such considerations get short shrift at the White House, where the debate is about what means can be used to drive Saddam from power. Indeed, at a time when his popularity has begun to sag, the president has led forcefully and emerged as leader of an all-powerful global coalition that includes the Soviet Union. Complaints that the president is overplaying his hand against ''the Beast of Baghdad'' are hard to find. Even his risky dispatch yesterday of planes and troops to Saudi Arabia generated widespread support.

Not all American politicians consider Saddam Hussein a madman driven by Arab romanticism who will surely self-destruct, but few have had the courage to criticize U.S. policy as plainly and publicly as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) did last weekend. A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Specter was one of the first senators to visit Saddam earlier this year for frank talks about U.S.-Iraqi relations.

Specter told us the United States has ''mishandled him {Saddam} very badly,'' adding: ''He is a rational man. He's a dangerous man, but he's someone that we have to deal with. After this is all over, we have to have a much better plan for dialogue and for trying to influence the man.''

Inside the tightly shut White House, however, there is surprisingly strong support not to deal with Saddam Hussein at all but just remove him. That presumably would be done by military action, because assassination is illegal under U.S. law. But the job might presumably be farmed out to Iranian Shiite assassins who despise and fear Saddam or an Israeli Mossad intelligence hit squad trained in the war against the Palestinians.

Never alluded to in Bush's Washington is Iraq's long-standing claim to the tiny sheikdom of Kuwait, which became an independent state only when Britain so decreed 65 years ago. Iraq's claim cannot conceivably be used to justify its ''naked aggression,'' but Arab diplomats say privately that Saddam is bringing Arab nationalistic emotions to a boil.

The refusal of Jordan's King Hussein to join the attack against Saddam also stems from increasingly excited nationalism, particularly among Palestinians. Refugees from Palestine make up well over half of Kuwait's population and have no love for the royal family. Their refugee cousins are over half the population of Jordan, an acute source of political danger for King Hussein.

But Bush shows little political sympathy for his old friend in Jordan and now is separating himself from the king. That will build up Saddam by driving Jordan farther into the Iraqi camp. A key Arab diplomat here told us privately that Bush still resents assurances he got from King Hussein two weeks ago that he did not have to worry about Saddam Hussein and there would be no invasion of Kuwait. But Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak told Bush the same thing, and the president did not send him to the corner wearing a dunce's cap.

If Bush's bold U.S.-Western Europe-Japan sanctions plan holds and Iraq goes broke as its oil is seized or bottled up, the Iraqi ruler may be run off in a dramatic defeat. Bush could justifiably claim he has guided the West through its most dangerous crisis since Moscow lost the Cold War. International oil specialists praise him for political mastery in uniting the industrialized democracies and China behind his sanctions policy.

But Saddam withstood eight years of war against bigger, richer Iran. His people are so poor that a little more hardship would not be noticeable. It may be the fat and prosperous democracies that cannot withstand the deprivation of more costly oil.

If Saddam survives, the United States could face the same indignity Britain did in 1956 after its tragic explosion of hate against another Middle Eastern dictator. Egypt's Nasser wanted to be the new Saladin, and Britain did much to help him. Now the United States, with its mindless comparison of Saddam to Hitler, is running the same risk.