War with Iraq is not inevitable, although the fatalistic American mood is sliding in that direction.

As the U.S. strategists meticulously play out their war games, the realities of a live war have become mere abstractions. The financial toll, the economic upheaval, the effect on the 1992 presidential election, even the projected body count are listed like so many ingredients in a recipe for quick victory. Tenderize it with government jargon, mince it through the media's meat grinder and then turn on the heat.

It is a glib guidebook for the post-Cold War games of the 1990s. The experts take everything they know, feed it into a computer and press the button for a printout of war on paper.

In a throwback to the "good old wars" of days gone by, even some liberals and moderates have pressed the conservative president to teach Saddam Hussein a lesson. Relatively few besides the pacifist left and the neo-isolationist right have dared dampen the patriotic ardor of America gearing up for war.

Authoritative news accounts ooze the inevitability of an armed conflict. August opinion journals call on the U.S.-led alliance to get on with the dirty work and liberate Kuwait. Reports of brutal human rights abuses by the Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait add to the urgency. If the United States doesn't move now, will there be anything or anyone left to liberate? How long before U.S. troops lose their fighting edge, and how long before the sand clogs every M-16, tank and helicopter rotor?

The din of "what ifs" has drowned out talk of a negotiated settlement.

Yet, among the handful of dissenters there is sage advice from some who have been seasoned by diplomacy or hardened by combat. No less a war hero than decorated Marine James Webb, a secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, has called on the Bush administration to put on the brakes. He says the United States must sort out exactly what it hopes to accomplish before it fires a shot.

Perhaps Webb remembers too many comrades dying vainly in the last great war with no direction -- Vietnam. Others too are exhorting the administration to line up its ducks and know the costs before firing.

President Bush is showing signs that he is mulling over that advice. In his recent address to the United Nations and in subsequent overtures, Bush has hinted that he is not blind to the downside of war with Iraq. While holding firm on his demand that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait, Bush apparently isn't ruling out assorted topics for talks, including a settlement of Arab and Israeli differences.

The United States had to deploy troops to protect vital Persian Gulf interests, but beyond that lies a fork in the road. One path leads directly to war, while the other leads to negotiations. One uses the military to "kick butt," while the other uses the military as a bargaining chip -- a huge foot ready to kick, but able to be restrained.

However hard a bargain Saddam might drive in negotiations, it would be cheaper than kicking him. The problem with all of the arguments for armed action is that they overlook the flesh and blood, the dollars and cents. Secret Pentagon projections of the U.S. death toll start at 2,000 and go up to 20,000 for the first month. Iraq is no Panama, a sleeping, unaware enemy ripe for picking off. It is much larger and has weathered a hellish war with Iran for most of the past decade.

There is also the billions of dollars the Treasury would have to fork over when Congress can't handle a domestic budget crisis. And the tab for waging war could be a drop in the bucket when compared to the postwar expenses. If bombs disrupt the Persian Gulf oil fields, the astronomical price of crude would upend the U.S. economy, maybe even the world economy.

American troops could most likely drive Iraq out of Kuwait, but then what? Do they stop in Kuwait or go on to Baghdad and become an occupying army in a hostile nation with no leadership?

If the United States stops in Kuwait, that would give Saddam a backdoor victory. He would be no worse off than he was before he started, and he would still have his chemical and biological arsenal. The other Arab nations would politely but firmly tell the Yankees to go home. But U.S. troops wouldn't have time to unpack their bags before Saddam pulled another stunt.

Yet, removing him from power in Iraq presupposes that the Bush administration has some plan for a post-Saddam Iraq. A Western puppet government wouldn't last five minutes. Ambitious Mideast rivals like Syria and Iran might rush in to fill the vacuum. So before the United States kicks Saddam's behind, it had better look him in the eye for a while. He can't be trusted, but he can be boxed into a negotiated settlement, especially one that allows him to save face.

1990, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.