Worse than the possibility that the boycott of Iraq may fail is the possibility that it may succeed. In that event, Iraqi television might show starving children of the kind we have all seen before -- barely living anatomy lessons with every bone visible and pronounced. Could America stomach such a sight?

My guess is not. But even the remote possibility that children will starve points up once again how there is simply no good way out of the present crisis. If the embargo fails, the United States must use force to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and ensure that he never again poses a threat to neighboring states, including Israel. If the embargo succeeds and Saddam Hussein chooses to feed his army first, then we may well be in the position of starving children, not to mention hostages. That too cannot be permitted.

Logic -- awful logic -- points to war and says, really, that nothing much has changed since Aug. 2 and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Within days, Saddam Hussein made two decisions, both of which seem irrevocable. He annexed Kuwait, making it a province of Iraq by fiat, and even more ominous, he abandoned the territory he had won in the war with Iran. Taken in tandem, the two decisions meant that if Saddam Hussein pulled out of Kuwait, as President Bush insists, he would have nothing to show for his aggression -- not Iranian territory and not even Kuwait. This pill is both too bitter and too huge for Saddam Hussein to swallow.

The first recorded embargo was in ancient Greece (432 B.C.), according to Barry Carter, author of "International Economic Sanctions." Ever since, governments and leaders have had great faith in their efficacy. In attempting to get the United States to join the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson talked of embargoes (the league's primary enforcement instrument) as if it were war itself. But the league's embargo of Italy (over Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia) was instructive. It failed. Since then it's been hard to find one (there have been more than 90 since World War II) that has unambiguously succeeded. Borders are porous.

For the moment, the embargo of Iraq seems to be working fairly well. But there is no reason to believe that this embargo will work significantly better than any other or, even if it does, that it will result in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The sanctions Washington imposed on Panama did not topple Manuel Noriega. An invasion did that. And during World War II, neither the Germans nor the Japanese rose up against despotic regimes. Instead, both peoples fought tenaciously and surrendered only when ordered to by their own governments. These are not happy precedents.

Having put more than 100,000 American soldiers in the Saudi desert, President Bush cannot bring them home without something to show for the effort. At a minimum, he needs Iraq out of Kuwait, but even that might not be enough. A Saddam Hussein who remains in power, who has a million-man army, who has chemical weapons and is developing a nuclear capability, is hardly a good choice for parole. If neighboring states, not to mention their oil, are to be safe, Saddam has to go.

These, then, are the basics -- and they have not changed all that much over the past month. But the Bush administration, having organized the anti-Saddam effort in a burst of incredible energy, seems to be running out of steam. Back from vacation and presumably uneasy about U.S. policy, Secretary of State James Baker III floated the idea of some sort of NATO alliance for the Persian Gulf that would, among other things, somehow shame Saddam Hussein into abandoning his chemical arsenal. When some in Congress questioned Baker, he backed down, saying he was just thinking out loud. On the contrary. It seemed he wasn't thinking at all.

With the Republican Party split between hawks and doves and Congress finally asking some hard questions (Where's Japan's money? Where's that Arab army? Don't West Germans use gasoline?), the president seems to have lost sight of his original goal: Getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and maybe out of Iraq as well.

But once he embarked on this course -- once he sent an army into the Arabian desert, called Saddam Hussein a Hitler and said fundamental American interests were at stake -- there was no turning back. The choice was always a horrible one, between an embargo that succeeded and possibly took a ghastly toll of the civilian population and one that failed and consequently meant war. In the last month, much has been said, but not much has changed. The choices remain horrible.