SADDAM HUSSEIN has put a cruel twist on "Desert Shield," the name the Pentagon applied to the protective American military operation that the United States is mounting in and off Saudi Arabia. He is using the hundreds of American civilians marooned in Iraq and the thousands of Americans caught in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait against the possibility of both an American-led military reprisal and the tightening of the international embargo. A unanimous United Nations Security Council demanded that President Hussein release all the foreign nationals he has so outrageously entrapped. To split the coalition that Washington organized after his swallowing of Kuwait, he is selectively releasing some of them. Large numbers of helpless people of many lands remain in jeopardy.

In his address to an American veterans' group yesterday, President Bush acknowledged that, with the Iraqis demanding a price for the detainees -- the undoing of the American expeditionary force and of the international sanctions -- they are in fact ''hostages.'' He had shrunk from using that word for its echoes of the humiliation the United States has suffered in the cases of the American diplomats seized earlier in Iran and of the Americans and others held to this day in Lebanon. The candor is welcome and useful for a president attempting to build public and international support. Hostage-taking adds to the onus on Saddam Hussein: he is the perpetrator of a double grab -- not only of Kuwait but of many countries' citizens. But obviously it also burdens the American task of composing a fit response to the aggressor and, in particular, of holding the new alliance together.

This remains key. No less than George Bush is Saddam Hussein seeking to isolate the enemy. President Hussein means to do it by presenting American policy as the product of American imperialism allied with a discredited Arab establishment on the one hand and Zionism on the other. This is a shrewd strategy, and to counter it Mr. Bush needs constantly to show he is acting in a broad regional and international interest, not in a narrow American one. He must not only make common cause with others whose territory, resources, citizens, independence and security are threatened by Saddam Hussein. He must make ever deeper use of the instruments and processes of international cooperation, first of all those at the United Nations. The risk to American policy is not so much that precious opportunities for independent action will be lost as that necessary and valid responses will be foreclosed or devalued for being taken by Washington alone.