"When you get a problem with the complexities that the Middle East has now, and the Gulf has now, I enjoy trying to put the coalition together and keep it together."

-- George Bush, Oct. 10. The man who loved coalitions is now being undone by them. George Bush, a man of no strong convictions, for whom building a coalition around a consensus is the most congenial way of doing business, is learning that coalition politics, domestic and international, has its price. Bush has suffered through the worst two weeks of his presidency, and the suffering has largely been inflicted by the coalitions he has labored to construct at home and abroad.

When Bush put together an extraordinary international coalition against Saddam Hussein, he was showered with acclaim. The benefits were obvious: diplomatic cover, domestic support, political legitimacy for an operation that had started out with the United States playing Lone Ranger and Saudi Arabia playing Tonto. Within weeks Bush had brought to the playing field an impressive array of spear carriers and shield bearers from around the world.

Everyone applauded. No one bothered to look at the hidden costs of such expansive multilateralism. But they are equally obvious: every partner is a kibitzer, and a kibitzer, moreover, with a national interest. National interests diverge. Any consensus policy must therefore appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Consider this scenario. Bush decides that sanctions are not working and that he faces the choice between war and humiliating diplomatic defeat. War might loudly bust up the coalition. Therefore, to placate some of his more recalcitrant Security Council partners -- the Soviets, the Chinese, the French -- and to demonstrate to the world that the United States went the extra mile, he might, rather than launch a surprise attack, get the U.N. first to issue an ultimatum: out of Kuwait in, say, seven days, or you will find yourself at war. That cautionary act, so necessary for Bush's coalition, might prove costly to his soldiers, who would have to fight having forfeited the element of surprise.

One cost of coalition is that it inhibits you from doing what you might want to do unilaterally. The other, less theoretical, cost is that it makes you do things you wouldn't ordinarily do. That cost was incurred last week when the administration decided it had to inflict a gratuitous injury on one ally, Israel, in order to placate the rest.

In a cynical play of coalition politics, the administration reacted to the deaths in the Temple Mount riot by endorsing a U.N. condemnation of Israel. Such condemnations are exercises in cynicism anyway (the Security Council still carries on its books its 1981 condemnation of Israel -- for destroying Saddam's nuclear bomb factory!), but that is still no excuse for the United States to condemn Israel for an unpremeditated reaction to a Palestinian attack on Judaism's holiest shrine.

Israel should have been better prepared, says the administration. Well, yes. And so should India in the Kashmir riots this January (70 dead), Saudi Arabia in the Mecca riots of 1987 (402 dead), the United States in the Detroit riots of 1967 (43 dead). Poor riot control is regrettable. But it is hardly warrant for a U.N. condemnation. And for everyone but Israel, it never is.

Rather than allow its Arab allies to blackmail the United States into accommodating their hostility to Israel, the administration should have insisted that since the United States is risking its soldiers in defense of Arabs, they might move some way toward the American position on the Arab-Israeli question. After all, who's protecting whom in the Gulf?

Selling a piece of yourself is, however, a cost of coalition. Bush has certainly learned that about domestic coalitions, too. Like the one he tried to construct at the Andrews budget talks with the Democratic congressional leadership. It is in Bush's nature to seek consensus solutions to political problems. Unfortunately for Bush, politics both domestic and international are often too partisan (or principled) to allow that kind of approach to succeed. Some people actually believe in things and will not allow differences to be fudged.

For Republicans, no new taxes was a principle of sorts. Not one that I believed in, nor George Bush. But the president did enunciate it as a principle, and his party did believe in it. Moreover, the party depended crucially on that pledge politically. It allowed Republicans to fend off all the difficult political tradeoffs involved in deciding whom and what to tax.

When the House Republicans therefore panicked, bolted and helped defeat the president's Andrews deal, Bush temporarily toyed with the idea of dispensing with the coalition (with Democrats) and trying to reunify his own party by accepting a House Republican plan to cut capital gains taxes in return for higher income taxes.

For an agonizing week, Bush wavered between these two tracks, Republican-partisan and Democratic-coalition. Hence the great flip-flop on raising income taxes. In the end, he chose to pursue a son-of-Andrews deal. As always, he chose coalition. But his erratic performance leaves him exposed to the charge that he is a man without convictions, only partners. It is a charge not easily refuted.