I support the decision by President Bush to stand against Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. The president acted properly in seeking United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

It may also have been logical to buy time with a military presence to deter a possible move by Saddam into Saudi Arabia.

But this later move is fraught with political and military danger -- to say nothing of its economic cost at a time when we can ill afford it. It should be subordinated to finding a diplomatic solution to a complicated issue that will never be decided militarily. We should do everything we reasonably can to avoid engaging our military forces in the Arab world. This venture will turn sour even more quickly than did Vietnam if we do not handle it with great restraint and wisdom and with the full cooperation of the United Nations.

The president says the American "way of life" is on the line in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This is nonsense. What is on the line is the control of a fraction of the world's oil production and the aggression of an Arab dictator against an Arab monarchy. Those are interests of the United States. But they should be kept in perspective with our other interests.

Kuwait is now producing 2 percent of the world's oil, Iraq 5 percent and Saudi Arabia 8 percent. They cannot survive economically unless they can sell this oil. The United States can survive very well without purchasing any of this production. We can increase our own production, cut our consumption, seek other sources of oil and at long last develop cleaner alternative energy -- which we should have been doing long ago both for security and environmental reasons.

There is no challenge in the Persian Gulf that is as serious for America as our fiscal and economic crisis at home and the unfair enrichment during the past decade of the super-rich at the expense of our workers, farmers and the middle class. Looming over our society are the alarming dangers of drugs, crime, educational decline, pollution, social disorder and poverty. An American war in the Middle East would aggravate every serious problem now facing the United States. Indeed, we cannot really undertake the rebuilding of the nation's physical and social infrastructure until we can convert a significant portion of our gigantic Cold War budget to peacetime purposes.

Furthermore, our long-term standing in the Middle East will begin to crumble if American firepower is unleashed against a weaker Arab populace. Killing Arabs is not a good way to impress them with American resolve. Paradoxically, it is our longtime superpower rival -- the Soviet Union -- that is warning us most clearly of this danger and the greater need for a diplomatic solution.

One hesitates when not in public office and not fully briefed to make a judgment on an issue as complex as the current crisis in the Persian Gulf. But it appears to me that President Bush is now needlessly risking war without really pursuing the opportunity for a negotiated solution that might embrace not only the Gulf but the entire Middle East.

The president is mistakenly treating the Iraq invasion of Kuwait as though it were the beginning of another Hitler-style move to take over the world. Even if so inclined, Saddam does not have the economic and military power to justify the Hitler analogy. The administration also seems to be acting as though events in the Persian Gulf are isolated from other Middle East issues that have long troubled the region.

I pray that the economic sanctions against Iraq and the formidable American force in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf will be enough to turn Saddam around without any loss of life on either side. One way to encourage such a peaceful outcome is to leave thedoors wide open for a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal. The administration should cool the belligerent rhetoric, emphasize the role of the United Nations and concentrate less on trying to humiliate Saddam and more on finding a workable solution.

It is at this point where the administration has been weakest. Saddam is doubtless the brutal strongman he is widely said to be. But for the past decade we cheered his brute strength when he was killing Iranians. Nor did we object strenuously when he killed 8,000 Kurds and thousands of other political dissenters in his own domain. We were right in standing up to him when he invaded Kuwait and seemed to threaten Saudi Arabia. But this does not mean we have no diplomatic, political or psychological opportunities other than military force and economic sanctions. We have the responsibility to our youth and to humanity to pursue all avenues that might honorably avoid bloodshed.

I trust that President Bush is urging the Soviet Union to use fully its long-standing relationship with the Iraqi dictator to press for his peaceful withdrawal from Kuwait. But beyond this, I would urge the president to encourage the possibility of an international conference convened by the U.N. Security Council to deal with all the major issues of the Middle East. Saddam Hussein has said that he would withdraw from Kuwait if Syria would get out of Lebanon and the Israelis would withdraw from the West Bank and the Golan Heights. He has also suggested an international conference and U.N. Security Council consideration of the crisis and other Middle East issues. It is a mistake to reject these suggestions automatically as the Bush administration has done. Why not call Saddam's hand, especially since the proposals he makes are similar to existing American policy.

For months the United States has been seeking talks between Israel and the Palestinians aimed at a settlement of the Palestinian issue, which has long disturbed the entire Middle East and has doubtless contributed to the present crisis in the Gulf. For years Lebanon has been torn and bleeding from internal conflict and Israeli and Syrian intervention. For eight years, Iran and Iraq slaughtered their youth, leaving a million young men and boys dead in a senseless war that Saddam now offers finally to resolve.

All of these issues could be placed on the agenda of a U.N.-sponsored, U.S.-led international conference. Such a conference could provide a practical way for Saddam to work out his dispute -- a dispute of long standing -- with Kuwait; for the Israelis to talk with the Palestinians and the Syrians; for the Lebanese tangle to be examined; and for all the parties with an interest in the Middle East to seek reconciliation. Agreed-upon solutions could then be guaranteed by an international peace-keeping force.

Perhaps the present crisis can be a blessing in disguise in that it has shown to the entire world the importance of achieving peace and justice in the Middle East. It has also demonstrated an effective post-Cold War peacekeeping role for the United Nations.

All wars eventually end at the conference table. Why not try to move the Persian Gulf war into the conference room before the blood begins to flow? My interest in this matter is more than academic or political: I have three grandsons whose ages range from 18 to 20. I do not want to see them sacrificed in a conflict over oil and paranoid power competition that might be resolved at the conference table. In 1965 as a U.S. senator I visited in Vietnam with my future son-in-law -- a 20-year-old Marine who had just come through the bloody Ia Drang Valley campaign. I do not want to repeat that experience with my grandsons on yet another killing field that might have been avoided by a little patience and wisdom. Blood is still more precious than oil.

The writer, a former U. S. senator from North Dakota, was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972.