Iraq's refusal to abandon its plans to erase Kuwait from the map and to seize the emirate's oil wealth confronts Americans with a moment of decision. The extended crisis in the Persian Gulf forces Americans to define who they are, in global terms, for a long time to come.

Saddam Hussein's deliberate attempt to change the subject from his invasion of Kuwait to hostages is the act of a man who sees himself bargaining with an America that is as cynical and shortsighted as he is.

Saddam believes there is an America he can cut a deal with to keep Kuwait for himself in return for empty promises about the future and the release of Western hostages. That would be an America that accepts the view that the conflict is solely about oil and restoring Kuwait's autocratic emirs to power. Those goals are not worth the price of American exposure to the risks of combat with the Iraqi army, Saddam believes his America will conclude.

Saddam's America does not have the resolve, discipline or confidence to endure a protracted confrontation with a medium-size Arab nation willing to use poison gas to retain its conquests. Saddam's America was so badly burned by Vietnam that it can support only quick, easy operations in the Third World like Grenada and Panama. There is already enough second-guessing of George Bush's swift response to Iraqi aggression to encourage Saddam and others abroad that this view of America will prevail.

For Washington the focal point of any crisis is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. How is the president doing? Complex issues get reduced to soap-opera plots in which one man is heroic or abject, brilliant or flawed, depending on the script requirements.

But Americans need to remember that the rest of the world views American actions in the Gulf crisis through a much broader prism. America's friends and foes abroad judge not just the reactions of George Bush to Saddam's piracy but those of the entire nation. This is one of these decisive historic moments that confirms, or shatters, the national stereotypes that influence the expectations and policies of other nations toward America.

Bush's initial moves have in fact persuaded foreign leaders that they can count on his resolve in this crisis. This has been a key factor in the impressive international consensus that has formed behind the U.S.-initiated naval blockade and the freezing of Kuwaiti and Iraqi funds abroad. But as one European official suggested in a recent conversation, it is American public opinion, not Bush, that is the big question mark for the rest of the world.

Saddam attempts to distract and confuse Americans with his stop-and-go jitterbugging on the hostages. It is not bureaucracy or internal debate in Iraq that prevents larger numbers of the captives from being released, as Saddam promised. It is Saddam's strategy that keeps them there. He makes promises he has no intention of keeping and then allows a few hostages to dribble out to whet the American appetite for a deal.

It is important then to be clear about what the United States can accomplish by refusing the deal and successfully driving Iraq out of Kuwait by a mixture of diplomacy and military pressure.

Bush has moved to restore not a ruler but a state. This is not just another distant dustup among ragheads, as some suggest in arguing that the United States has no interests involved in the Iraq-Kuwait conflict. This is the first time in its 45-year history that a member of the United Nations has been invaded and then abolished as a political inconvenience to the invader.

In the Arab world, even a partial victory by Saddam will be seen as proof that brutality and hostage-taking are the only effective political tools Arabs possess. The serious risk of terrorism that Americans and others already run in this crisis will multiply enormously if Saddam is left in place to continue building up his chemical arsenal and add a nuclear capability to it in a few years.

In molding and leading an Arab force to oust Saddam from Kuwait, the United States offers an alternative to the current dead end of political hatreds and divisions of Arab politics. This opportunity to unlock a positive political dynamic makes Operation Desert Shield much more important than was the much easier reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers by the U.S. Navy in the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war.

Saddam's invasion of Kuwait has given America an unhoped for chance to show that American involvement in the Third World is not in and of itself an evil and unwise thing, the political equivalent of original sin. The fear at home that America will do too much and plunge into disaster is the mirror image of the growing concern abroad that America will do too little as Saddam's threats and hostage-holding undermine American support.

America's friends abroad pray that it is George Bush's America, not Saddam Hussein's perverted version of America, that will prevail.