SUMMITS SUCH as today's brief meeting in Helsinki are by definition efforts in personal diplomacy. But the unhappy truth about the Kuwait crisis is precisely an excess of personalized policy-making. As the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf continues with no end in sight, Bush's many admirers and his few critics both agree that he has been a superb crisis-manager, decisive and adroit. But while the admirers are content to cheer, this critic wishes that George Bush the crisis-manager was reporting to a president who retained his sense of perspective.

In the absence of such perspective, day-to-day decisions have been shaped by the press of events, while we have lost sight of our long-range purposes in the region. The Kuwait crisis has been allowed to dominate U.S. policies across the board -- Bush identifies it as a threat to "our way of life" -- even as an unprecedented economic crisis at home actually does threaten that way of life. One would never know it from the president's conduct, but there are still priorities more important than the conversion of the United States into the world's greatest Persian Gulf power.

Conducting his own diplomacy over the telephone as if there were no State Department, seeking no broader advice than a small boatload of intimates can give him, the president has been sitting in the driver's seat all by himself right from the outset of the crisis. He has been skillful indeed, but it is no use driving without a firm destination, and the lack of a presidential navigator with a strategic map in hand has now become painfully obvious.

At first the president's announced goal was an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal and the restoration of the emir of Kuwait. Then it was to destroy Saddam Hussein's regime -- for the perfectly good reason that a mere return to the status quo ante would leave the Iraqis one night away from a fresh invasion of Kuwait. Then the very success of the president's coalition diplomacy deprived him of his military options -- for any offensive use of U.S. military power without some improbably blatant Iraqi provocation would immediately splinter his improvised alliance. Last week, Prince Sultan ibn Abdul Aziz, the Saudi defense minister, informed the world that U.S. forces will not be allowed to mount any offensive action from Saudi soil against a "brother Arab state."

More broadly, any unilateral U.S. military move is now inhibited by the seductive prospect of exploiting the crisis to fashion a post-Cold War world order enforced by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- an attractive vision until one begins to contemplate the deep resentments that a condominium of the five nuclear powers would evoke. For a start, India, Germany and Japan -- none of whom is a permanent Security Council member -- can each claim a greater place in world affairs than permanent members Britain or France -- or indeed both together.

In any event, the president's current goal is simply to keep going with an ever-larger deployment of American forces in the region, and an ever-broader coalition against Iraq, hoping that economic sanctions and covert operations (of the sort that failed even against Noriega) will somehow, someday, bring down Saddam.

In the meantime, however, the very magnitude of the forces assembled against him makes it that much easier politically for Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait without a fatal loss of prestige. It seems most improbable that the Iraqis would overthrow their dictator just when he has proved that he is a towering world-class figure.

Thus Saddam now has the initiative. He could at any time bring about the collapse of both blockade and coalition by abandoning Kuwait, immediately restoring his oil revenues and thus his capacity to import yet more equipment for his military industries with their missile, chemical and nuclear programs. And while the United States would then have to ship its forces home, Saddam would still remain in place -- and still one night away from a bigger and better invasion.

For all his tactical successes along the way, the president's very personal handling of the crisis is thus highly questionable stategically, even within the confines of the Persian Gulf region. And it looks distinctly unwise in a global perspective that includes the state of the American economy at this time of transition from the geopolitical struggle against the Soviet Union to the emerging 'geo-economic' era. In that new competition, disposable capital displaces firepower, product innovation counts more than military research and development, and systematic market penetration replaces garrisons and bases. True, in the backward strategic slum of the Middle East, old-style geopolitics still retains its full importance, and its tools of military power and diplomatic influence are still dominant. But in the main arena of world affairs it is geo-economics that increasingly shapes the dealings of Americans, Europeans, Japanese and their lesser competitors. While the United States is amply provided with the military strength and diplomatic leverage that now assures the oil supplies of its chief competitors, it is woefully ill-equipped in both capital and skills for the new era and is losing ground day by day.

That much is clearly advertised by the begging-bowl now proffered expectantly before the Japanese, Koreans and more affluent Europeans. Until now, it was only Third World ministers that would go on the road asking for donations as we are now doing. But that is perfectly appropriate, because the United States has itself been sliding into Third World conditions -- although in truth nowhere else is the typical Third World trait of massive public and private insolvency more in evidence.

This summer we discovered that it is not only the federal government that is insolvent, but also many states and municipalities. It is not only public finance that is insolvent, but private finance too, with a great number of banks in addition to the infamous S&Ls now on the edge of bankruptcy. There is a frightening number of enterprises and entrepreneurs in financial distress, as well as uncounted millions of private citizens whose first, second and third mortgages are undercut by falling real estate prices, and whose consumer loans cannot possibly be paid off in the now-inevitable recession.

Moreover, finance merely registers in abstract numbers the Third Worldization visually manifest in our pot-holed streets, crumbling bridges, overburdened airports and highways, outdated factories, hordes of beggars and sprawling slums that offer all the sights, smells and sounds familiar in Lagos or Rio but unknown in most of Europe and, but for China, increasingly rare even in East Asia.

Equally evident is the other defining Third World trait: the degraded skill and work discipline of the labor force. We see it all around us, in shops and offices whose clerks cannot spell or count, in small gas stations and vast airports where any form of service is reluctant and incompetent and in the armed forces whose manuals have had to be rewritten to exclude "long" words. Most importantly, the Third Worldization of America is manifest in our industries, which can no longer compete by quality as the First World does but must compete instead by devalued-dollar cheap prices as Bangladesh does. That is a losing game, for exports obtained by devaluation can only earn a devalued standard of living. The well-known exceptions, moreover, are deceptive and likely to be short-lived, for in spite of all the talk of free enterprise, the only two broadly successful U.S. export industries are aerospace and agriculture, both heavily subsidized directly or indirectly.

Looking at the panoply of U.S. forces so eagerly rushed to the Persian Gulf, looking concurrently at the state of the American economy, the world sees a "no-skill, no-money, have-gun-will-travel" society whose geo-economic failure by now seems quite predictable. While Iraq is thrust into the role of Nazi Germany and Saudi Arabia is elevated into a beleaguered 1940 Britain in need of GIs, the United States is becoming another Argentina.

When Saddam invaded Kuwait, we were just beginning to confront the economic and social predicaments that are degrading "our way of life" far more powerfully than any troubles in the Persian Gulf could ever do. President and Congress had at long last accepted the need to reduce drastically the federal deficit, and that was also the signal for society at large to end at last our long-running carnival of consumption and social indulgence. Then Kuwait was invaded, displacing Neil Bush and assorted famous bankruptcies from the headlines. The president eagerly rushed into action, and most members of Congress and a great many "opinion leaders" turned away from our painful economic travails to strike heroic poses of defiance against Saddam .

In the broader context that includes the state of the United States as well as the states and statelets of the Persian Gulf, it is much more important to end the crisis quickly than to manage it skillfully day by day, for uncounted days ahead.

The United States has no reliable way of destroying regimes, but airpower can at least destroy fixed facilities and can thus be employed to substantially disarm the Iraqis. That would not end the crisis but would eliminate its greater dangers, allowing us to withdraw our ground forces from Arabia.

That would in turn allow Bush to revert to his presidential duties and the nation to focus again on the hard task of economic rehabilitation. As for the aftermath in the Persian Gulf, an assistant secretary or two could be left to manage it. It is a fantasy to believe that the United States can attend to its urgent domestic crisis while at the same time keeping a large army at risk in a war zone.

Edward Luttwak holds the Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.