When President Bush briefed members of Congress on Tuesday about the Persian Gulf crisis, the intensity and breadth of support for him reflected war fever not seen in the capital since the beginning of the Vietnam War 25 years ago.

Although the president leashed his rhetoric in addressing the lawmakers, they left the White House fairly certain that within the next two months the United States would loosen its mighty war-making powers on Saddam Hussein. What's most remarkable is how few congressmen dread this prospect and how many welcome it.

Nothing said at the White House explicitly forecast that war is either inevitable or likely to result in a clean, quick U.S. victory. Nevertheless, that is precisely the expectation of well-placed members of Congress, based on private conversations with national security officials.

When Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was asked behind closed doors whether there would be war, his answer was no different than his replies to reporters (including us): The U.S. military forces are fulfilling the president's order "to deter further aggression" by Iraq.

But Cheney and national security assistant Brent Scowcroft, the president's main advisers during this crisis, are disdainful of negotiating Iraq withdrawal from Kuwait. U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar's peace mission is viewed by them with contempt. The U.S. view is that Iraq must get out of Kuwait first and talk later. Saddam will not do that, leaving the options of a revolution or coup d'etat in Iraq removing him from power -- or war. Knowledgeable members of Congress who attended the briefing believe the choice will be war.

"There is nobody -- or I should say, almost nobody -- in this building {the Pentagon} who assumes it would be easy," a Bush policy maker told us. But lower-level officials have laid before members of Congress the six-day solution: a war-fighting scenario that would replicate past Israeli wipeouts of Arab armies with overwhelming air power.

Attacks by F-14 Tomcats, F-111s, B-52s and maybe B-1s would surpass anything available in the Israeli arsenal. Followed up by tactical air strikes, this would devastate "thin-skinned" Iraq trucks supplying fuel and other supplies, and Saddam's massive tank army would die of thirst.

A U.S. air assault would guarantee the formidable Iraqi army's attack on American forces in Saudi Arabia. Members of Congress have been told that the United States is not quite ready for that and may not be for six weeks or so. A Marine brigade group (equivalent to an Army division) and the 82nd Airborne Division have completed their transport and are now on the ground, but more heavy tanks are needed to face Saddam's counterattack.

The unmistakable message is that this massive deployment is meant for something more than deterring an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, the likelihood of which was always dubious. The horrors of war are mitigated by visions of a speedy conflict based on technological advantage, where the bloodshed would be preponderantly Iraqi.

Such rosy visions have been floated by general staffs for centuries, but the credibility in this instance is enhanced by how well plans worked out in the vest-pocket Panamanian operation. The word has been passed that Bush would let the Pentagon direct combat in the Persian Gulf as it did in Panama -- without Lyndon Johnson-style interference from the Oval Office.

The worst-case scenario is that technological superiority will not immediately prevail, and that months of ground fighting and weekly casualty lists will ensue, with U.S. Marines fighting their way house to house through Kuwait City and Baghdad. Today's political axiom is that the American people have even less tolerance for protracted war than for watchful waiting in the desert.

The risks for the president, therefore, are overwhelming. He can, as one Republican member of Congress told us, become a dominant figure in American history who would relegate Ronald Reagan's place in history to being the man who preceded George Bush. The alternative is a failed presidency. If the members of Congress who visited the White House Tuesday are correct, the answer will come from a test of arms -- always a chancy proposition, as history attests.