An outburst of foot-in-mouth disease cost Gen. Michael Dugan his job as Air Force chief of staff. But the Dugan flap has a meaning beyond one man's bravado. It suggests that time is running out on the constructive ambiguity President Bush has used with great effect in the first 60 days of the Persian Gulf crisis.

Bush must soon act decisively in Kuwait or explain why he cannot. The savage destruction of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's troops and the shrinking national attention span for the complex goals and justifications for Operation Desert Shield require Bush to address more clearly two fundamental questions: Where is the United States going and how will it get there?

Dugan's Pentagon defenestration for a set of overstated claims for air power is unfortunate on three counts: 1. He spilt beans better left unspilt. 2. His dismissal will be taken by Saddam as a sign of U.S. weakness and confusion. 3. Dugan's comments triggered unfounded assertions that the strategic-bombing campaign against Saddam would be folly.

These assertions are part of a small but growing tendency by some American opinion makers to predict that U.S. power and strategy cannot -- some say should not -- bring down Saddam. This judgment leaves negotiations and compromise with the Iraqi dictator as America's only viable choice to end this confrontation.

I would have a lot more sympathy for this argument if I had not closely followed Saddam's reign of terror at home and abroad over the past 20 years and had the chance to visit Iraq several times and meet Saddam. Iraq's divided and brutalized population are not World War II Germans or the Vietnamese ready to resist at any price. And Saddam is not the Third World paragon some who have recently discovered him seem to believe he is.

In the leaflets they hand out or the opinion papers they write, Bush's critics portray a Saddam I don't recognize. It is the same imaginary Saddam who for a long time dwelled in State Department cables and briefing books: a tough but responsive Saddam ready to negotiate differences in good faith, a Saddam who would let market forces determine the price of oil even though he controlled supply, a Saddam whose bellicose threats are just an unfortunate example of Arab rhetoric and not to be taken seriously.

The American dissidents are adopting the same patronizing, almost racially based, attitude that the American diplomats have used in explaining away Saddam's evil. Don't take his threats seriously; it is just his culture. How else is this poor beleaguered nationalist supposed to respond to finding 150,000 U.S. troops on his (recently extended) doorstep?

But while dissidents have been making such arguments, Saddam's actions in Kuwait show that he is not interested in compromise or in leaving Kuwait -- on any terms.

He has begun to depopulate Kuwait, as he once did with Kurdistan, and to send in Iraqis with phony new citizenship documents. Based on Saddam's bloodstained track record, it is almost certain that the young Kuwaiti men being grabbed at the border and elsewhere in Kuwait are being sent to Iraq to die. American refugees and others report that Kuwait City's hospitals are being stripped of incubators and any other supplies that can be sent to Baghdad, leaving babies and infirm patients to die.

Those who oppose the use of U.S. military force -- now -- bear a heavy responsibility to describe a course of action that will halt the physical destruction of Kuwait and of those Kuwaitis who cannot or will not leave. To say that Bush should give sanctions and negotiations a chance so he can avoid the costs of attacking Iraq's occupation forces is not enough. That does not stay Saddam's ruthless hand.

Before World War II, America watched and did not act as Germany's Jews were led away to destruction. More recently, America watched and did not act as Saddam escalated his unfinished step-by-step genocide campaign against the Kurds. Are there Americans who would again watch as the Kuwaiti state and people are wiped out by the Iraqis?

Saddam rushes to erase the justification for saving Kuwait by erasing Kuwait itself. That is why time is beginning to work against Bush's creative ambiguity on the relationship between aims and methods. The president also needs to speak out clearly to prevent erosion of the remarkable public support he still has in the United States.

The Dugan flap shows that the national mind is beginning to wander as the crisis blends into the landscape. Instead of being part of the problem, as his firing suggests, the air campaign Dugan outlined is part of the answer. But the meaning of what he said was submerged in the colorful drama of a general officer committing career hara-kiri.

The critics of Dugan's argument say that strategic air strikes are, like economic sanctions, too blunt an instrument to bring victory over Iraq. They cite historic examples. But Bush has the opportunity to use the combined impact of sanctions and a military campaign built around air power to save Kuwait while there is time. Such a victory is necessary, and possible.