In this decade of the '90s that was supposed to usher in peace, there are few people, in Washington at least, who can see a way out of the Gulf crisis without war. There is a palpable sense that this is the way things are going. It is evident among people who see an Iraqi-American war as the essential condition to affirming American credibility, among those who fear war will bring only heavy costs and extra troubles, and among those who are simply dazed by the rush of events.

The single group that thinks there may be a peaceful way out is not the people who are wary of war. It is some of the people who are ready for war, anxious lest the pressure on Saddam Hussein let him take cover behind United Nations resolutions that dictate the removal of his forces from Kuwait but leave him sitting pretty with his bombs and his power lust. Their anxieties that Saddam will slip the noose, however, are so far unsupported by evidence that things are moving that way.

The United States and Iraq are engaged in a classic test of wills. It may all have been avoidable, had not the Bush administration given Saddam Hussein what he apparently took as a wink on the eve of his invasion. But once the deed was done, the test began, and it has gotten sterner as the weeks have passed. Each side has striven to convey that it will not back off its primary objective -- Baghdad's is to hold Kuwait, Washington's is to force Iraq out -- to avoid war.

One kind of ''diplomacy'' has been used on both sides -- to splendid effect by President Bush. It is the kind meant to draw in other countries, reinforce the military buildup and diminish and isolate the other party.

But there has been no ''diplomacy'' in the sense of a search for ways either to soften the confrontation or to find alternative means to satisfy the two sides' requirements.

Softening the confrontation is not on right now. It is not necessarily a case of being stiff-necked. At this point, the United States shouldn't be undertaking to relax the pressure but to stiffen it -- in respectful awareness of the risks of accident or popping off. If Iraq is going to bend, it probably will do so only when it thinks war is imminent and promising of dire results. Things aren't quite at that brink yet. It is true that, once there, a reluctance to blink could produce war. But it would be the second campaign in a war whose first campaign was the swallowing of Kuwait. For the United States to blink early would undercut its principled response to Iraqi aggression.

While the pressure builds, however, other tasks of policy become central. One is to establish what are the country's political aims and its potential war aims. The Bush administration now floats indecisively between the professed goal of restoring the prewar status quo (leaving Saddam's position and Iraq's power unimpaired) and the conditional hinted-at goal of overturning that status quo (neutralizing him and his advanced weaponry). This float may have a rationale during the run-up to the brink -- to sober Saddam. But not to have a clear agreed idea of what the United States is demanding or, if war loomed, of what it was fighting for courts massive confusion and division at home and abroad.

Farfetched though it may be at this grim moment, imagine that Saddam comes to contemplate accepting the United Nations resolutions restoring the prewar status quo. How could he not be given pause by the consideration that, if he goes ahead, the United States may raise the goalposts and demand that he also abandon power?

The other policy task is to seek out ways other than confrontation to satisfy the two sides -- in a word, negotiation. The idea has few takers in Washington these days, and, so far as one can tell, none in Baghdad. Here it tends to get identified with appeasement. The Security Council resolutions are mum on the matter. Casual talk goes on about an ''Arab solution'' involving the replacement of Iraqi troops in Kuwait by Arab troops, and of American troops in Saudi Arabia by the U.N. But little serious stirring is visible.

While we're waiting for the Arabs, where is Mikhail Gorbachev? With its proximity, oil and 50 million Moslems, the Soviet Union has reasons of state to take a diplomatic plunge. Politically, it has condemned the aggression but kept a hand in in Iraq and has not sent forces to the Gulf. Culturally, it is not disabled by being a target of the Moslem rage brilliantly and prophetically described by Bernard Lewis in the September Atlantic. Diplomatically, it has the access. Certainly Gorbachev has the personal standing. Take a shot, Mikhail Sergeyevich.