From the initial deployment of U.S. forces to the skillful weaving of international support, the management of the Gulf crisis by the Bush administration has been flawless. But foreign policy is remembered for its endgames, not the opening moves. And the most difficult decisions remain to be made.

Too many commentators are reducing these choices to either a quick strike or successful sanctions. But no serious person favors military action for its own sake; a solution through sanctions would clearly be preferable.

At the same time, rhetoric will not determine whether sanctions can work. Success will depend on Iraqi stockpiles of critical supplies and on the impact of shortages on Iraqi morale. That particular assessment must be made by intelligence experts. But laymen can ask whether, assuming sanctions can work, they will be sustained by the international community, especially among the democratic countries. Sanctions are designed to impose hardship. Iraq's people have been habituated to hardship by a decade of conflict. It is thus possible that only a successful food blockade will work. But what is the tolerance of democratic publics for television and other media depictions of starving women and children? "Humanitarian" exceptions as provided in the U.N. resolution are not the answer; they would be either too little or too much. Food being fungible, any shipment providing significant relief would undermine the effectiveness of the sanctions and contribute to a stalemate.

For economic and political reasons, I doubt that a stalemate can be sustained either by our associates or by the United States for many months. The rise in oil prices has already reduced growth projections in the industrial democracies by 1 percent and greatly increased the danger of inflation. The longer the conflict lasts, the worse the problem will become. A cold winter or sabotage in Gulf oil fields would magnify this rise in oil prices. And the more prices increase, the more oil inventories will be hoarded, accelerating the vicious spiral. No one can know at what oil price support for sanctions would erode. But it would be reckless to ignore the prospect.

On the political front, a prolonged stalemate is likely to undermine the domestic stability of our Arab associates. Large numbers of foreign forces on Saudi soil -- however well-meaning -- must be grating to a population carefully shielded heretofore from contact with the outside world. As time passes, radical propaganda labeling foreigners as occupiers will become increasingly plausible. Harassment and sabotage will mount -- as was the case with the American forces in Lebanon in 1982-83.

We cannot afford to drift into a situation in which we undermine regional stability whether our forces remain in the region or are withdrawn without success. The same factor that led to the rapid American deployment -- the need to sustain moderate governments in the Gulf -- makes it imperative to create the right conditions for an equally rapid withdrawal.

The key decision before the administration is thus to define what constitutes a tolerable outcome. But this is muddled in too much of the current debate, which treats diplomacy as a self-contained exercise equated with compromise and with saving the other side's face. Yet these slogans, drawn from the experience of a society that has rarely known irreconcilable differences, are not relevant to Saddam's Iraq. In the past decade, Saddam Hussein has attacked Iran, annexed Kuwait, declared a holy war on Saudi Arabia and lives in mortal conflict with Syria. Jordan is terrified. Internally, Saddam Hussein has committed genocide against Iraq's Kurdish population with poison gas and by their forced migration. The only neighbor with which Iraq has had tolerable relations is the one that is stronger, namely Turkey.

In the current crisis, Iraq's use of hostages is without precedent. When hostages were first taken two decades ago, the culprits were outlaw groups not avowed even by governments that encouraged them. Terrorism then evolved into tacit government support targeted mostly on government personnel. Saddam has now escalated to overt actions by a head of state against thousands of innocent civilians from all over the world, most of whom had not even resided in Iraq.

In these circumstances, saving Iraq's face is the exact opposite of what is needed.

The test of that demonstration will not be the cleverness of formulas put forward in columns and talk shows but how the outcome is perceived by actual or potential victims. Early in America's involvement there was some argument as to whether American vital interests justified the deployment in the Gulf. I believe the administration was correct in continuing the policy of two predecessors from both major parties, which commits America to preventing the domination of the Gulf by a hostile nation. In any event, that debate has since been overtaken by the scale of our deployment and the number of countries that have followed America's leadership in the Gulf.

This international support can only be due to two factors: the other nations either agree with the American analysis of the need to stop the Iraqi aggression or they consider whatever reservations they have outweighed by their need for America's long-term support. The perception of American failure would therefore shake international stability. Every moderate country in the Middle East would be gravely weakened by a debacle. Several Gulf states could not survive it. Egypt, Morocco and even Turkey would face a tide of radicalism and fundamentalism.

President Bush was right in insisting -- and the Helsinki communique' with Gorbachev in reaffirming -- that no compromise of the U.N. resolutions is possible, namely Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, the unconditional release of all hostages and the restoration of Kuwait's legitimate government. Any modification of these terms would amount to an Iraqi gain and a defeat for the United States and its associates.

It is important to keep this in mind in view of the facile argument that the United States must not run risks on behalf of the emir of Kuwait. By insisting on a restoration of pre-invasion conditions, neither the United Nations nor the United States is passing judgment on the emir's qualities. They are asserting that the most repressive regime in the region does not have the right to sit in judgment over the domestic legitimacy of its neighbors. Of course, these traditional governments -- all of which are more benign than Baghdad's -- will in time change. But their evolution should be guided by their own dynamics, not dictated by a ruthless stronger neighbor.

Indeed, from an analytical point of view the U.N. terms already represent a compromise with what is really needed for the peace of the area and with what is compatible with the massive international deployment. Were Saddam Hussein suddenly to accept the U.N. terms, he would in fact preserve the essence of his power, although it would represent a huge loss of prestige for him. It might even bring home the need for moderation to the Iraqi leadership -- especially if Saddam were replaced as a consequence.

But this could easily turn out to be wishful thinking. For the strategic relationship that encouraged Iraqi aggression in the first place would remain intact. Iraq would still retain its chemical and nuclear capabilities. Its large standing army would still preserve the capacity to overwhelm the area. Many nations in the Middle East might adjust to the perception that the mobilization of forces from all over the world cannot be repeated every few years.

Reducing Iraq's disproportionate military capacity is especially important if American forces are to be withdrawn rapidly from the Gulf, as I believe they should be. To think that the area can be protected by multilateral security treaties is a fantasy. The experience of the defunct Baghdad pact and of SEATO shows the fragility of multilateral arrangements in regions where the nations involved have no coherent objectives or means of mutual support and frequently shift allegiances.

Paradoxically, it would be undesirable to reduce Iraq's armed forces below what is needed for equilibrium with its neighbors, especially in light of their past records, which attest to a low threshold of resistance to the temptations of a military vacuum. The democracies' support for Iraq during the war with Iran was a reflection of their commitment to Iraq's territorial integrity. What they are resisting now is having their economies and their peace held at ransom by a megalomaniacal ruler.

For all these reasons, I would feel more comfortable if the United States sought to strengthen the U.N. resolutions to remove the underlying threat to the peace of the area by insisting on internationally monitored reductions of Iraq's military capabilities. But were Saddam to yield to sanctions without war, President Bush might well decide that he could not go beyond the existing U.N. resolutions without which the sanctions would never have been implemented in the first place. Such an outcome would be as understandable as it would be precarious. It must be entered into -- if at all -- with the knowledge that it would require a much higher degree of continued vigilance and a larger American presence in the area than is basically desirable. On the other hand, if a military clash occurs, the United States should seek an outcome more consistent with long-term stability.

The administration must therefore decide at some point how long it is prepared to wait for sanctions to work and how far it is prepared to go without unanimous international support. Outsiders cannot establish arbitrary deadlines. I do not know whether the decision must be made in October or November. I would be very uneasy were it to be delayed into the new year, for I believe that the entire enterprise might then begin to unravel.

How much international support is required for military measures? It is lightly stated that the United States would be isolated in a military crunch. I do not believe this. The moderate Arab states would welcome a decisive American move if it were demonstrably the only alternative to Saddam's succeeding. As for our allies, conditions are in fact unusually favorable for an American initiative. Britain would agree to such a step. France would probably not want to jeopardize America's role in maintaining the European equilibrium after German unification. Germany has the same goal, if for different reasons. Japan will not lightly jeopardize its economic ties to the United States. As for Gorbachev, the economic weakness of the Soviet Union requires a concentration on domestic affairs. In short, the United States is not likely to find itself isolated if it decides after an appropriate testing period that sanctions are not working; indeed, the most likely road to isolation is by way of a protracted crisis.

In the flush of rediscovered multilateralism, the United States must not subordinate all long-range policy to the heady glow of internationalism or to the tactics of the moment. Even though I have consistently urged the inclusion of Syria in the peace process of the Middle East, I cannot repress my uneasiness at the eagerness with which the United States welcomed the movement of a Syrian armored division to Saudi Arabia. Do we know how to make it leave again? Are we in danger of repeating our mistake of the Iran-Iraq war, when we focused obsessively on the common foe of the moment? Would not the Syrian division be better employed on the Syrian border with Iraq? And having spent 40 years inducing the Soviet army to return behind its own frontiers, is it really wise to tempt a Soviet military role in the Middle East? In view of two centuries of Russian attempts to penetrate the Middle East, is that not like handing a drink to a reformed alcoholic?

In the process of overcoming the current crisis, the United States must not emerge as the permanent defender of every status quo. But the path to peace and progress resides in success in the Gulf. Afterward the United States, together with its Arab partners, can demonstrate the benefits of cooperative action in promoting the well-being of the Arab peoples. Too, it should then seek energetically to make progress toward a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially now that looming disaster might have brought all sides second thoughts about both the nature of a peace and suitable participants in peace negotiations. Sometimes platitudes turn out to be true. This is the test of the post-Cold War era. It remains for the administration to reap the benefits of its courageous efforts.