PRESIDENT Bush is under increasing pressure to set out his policy goals in relation to Iraq and the conflict it set off. This is extremely tough. For one thing, some element of mystery as to the ultimate intentions of his adversaries (and, therefore, of worry and of uncertainty as to where and how to deploy his resources) is essential to the war of nerves against Saddam Hussein. For another, as always in these multiple-ally arrangements -- and especially in such an all encompassing one as this -- there are things that some of the partners endorse but do not wish to have publicly acknowledged given the fragility of their own domestic political situations. And there is also an advantage for the president in not getting out ahead of what public opinion will sanction on the basis of what has already been done by the Iraqis or getting in "concrete" on policy positions that may need revision soon.

That is one half of the president's dilemma. The other is that some clarity and specificity as to long-term intentions is required to keep some of the most important constituencies aboard and to inform and win over others. The spectrum of possible goals is evident. Starting at the near end, the first is to defend Saudi Arabia so as to ensure a steady global supply of fairly priced oil. This has now been accomplished by, in the first instance, allied military deployments. But it has been done only provisionally, since even if Iraq were to withdraw from Kuwait, keeping both its president and its sinister arsenal, the shadow of menacing Iraqi power would still fall over Saudi territory and oil.

The next goal is to induce Iraq to restore Kuwait so as, mainly, to establish that raw aggression does not pay. This remains undone. Again, a simple Iraqi withdrawal would also leave Kuwaiti territory and oil under the shadow of Iraqi power. Mr. Bush is pursuing the defense of Saudi Arabia by erecting a multinational military shield. He seeks the liberation of Kuwait by mobilizing an international economic embargo. In both instances, an enduring result cannot be achieved until the Iraqi threat is not merely contained but brought to an end.

The Iraqi threat, as almost all of us now understand, consists of Saddam Hussein and his huge army and his gas-missile-nuclear complex. This means that to serve the two limited goals he has embraced, President Bush is ineluctably led on to two far more ambitious goals. One he elliptically acknowledges, while being necessarily vague about means -- to see Saddam Hussein removed. A second floats only in the mists between contingency and desire -- pulling Iraq's military teeth.

Pure strategists say that Mr. Bush must do what he must: weigh the operational risks but go after Saddam Hussein and his arsenal, perhaps better sooner than later. But democratic political leaders can take difficult acts effectively only in a context of domestic and international support, and there is terrible risk of debacle and rout here if the United States is tempted to act alone and without some fairly strong consensual support from its partners and the American public. At this point, Mr. Bush might not be able to make a full public case for bringing direct force against President Hussein. That could abruptly change, of course, in the event of Iraqi military or terrorist activities, threats to oil flows or mistreatment of hostages -- something like that -- or in the event that some of Saddam Hussein's officers or citizens took matters into their own hands.

Meanwhile, it still is not obvious how or if the full range of American policy goals up to and including the reduction of Iraq as a threat to global oil and regional peace is going to be achieved. Not even the less demanding goals of protecting the Saudis and Kuwaitis are likely to be met, however, if these more onerous goals are not at least identified and in some measure discussed and explained by the president. Mr. Bush is off to an impressive start in isolating and penalizing Iraq, but President Hussein is not without his own resources of regional popular appeal as well as power and wile. Probably Mr. Bush can only broaden the support he will need to take hard choices in the future if he clarifies in some degree the goals of his policy and the stakes that the United States and its friends have in a successful outcome. We think he can do this without undercutting the allies or giving away the game.