WHAT IS one to make of the Saudi defense minister's statement that Kuwait should be prepared to satisfy Iraq's "brotherly" rights and to cede Iraq some Kuwaiti territory, once Iraq withdraws? This deal is being suggested at a moment when Iraq, not satisfied with overrunning and annexing Kuwait, is looting and depopulating it, and when a United Nations united as never before rightly insists that the reiterated demand for Saddam Hussein's unconditional withdrawal cannot be weakened by prior concessions. Yet the brother of the king suggests, in tone if not in direct words, that a peace offering (someone else's territory!) should be made to an unrepentant aggressor and that Iraq should be welcomed back into the fold with apparently both its leadership and its menacing arsenal intact.

The Saudi government says nothing has changed. There's no reason to doubt it. As the key country in drawing the United States into a role as Gulf protector, Saudi Arabia has been ambivalent from the start. It sought protection but hoped to avoid dependency and obligation. It wanted Saddam Hussein reduced and perhaps by some swift overnight miracle removed, but it also knew it had to be prepared to continue living next door to an 800-pound gorilla. Elements of a similar ambivalence are also seen in the other Arab members of the Gulf alliance, and in the European members and even in the United States. The thrust of American policy has been to create a military option to end President Hussein's power and Iraq's threat, and a diplomatic option to ease the crisis and blur a more definitive reckoning -- and to put off choosing between them.

At some point, President Bush will have to choose. The informed consensus indicates that he has a few more months until considerations of comparative opportunity and staying power hem him in. Meanwhile, the most important requirement for him is to maintain the utmost clarity, at home and throughout the alliance, on the purposes for which he organized the alliance in the first place: to restore territorially and politically a victim of aggression, to care for security in a critical region and to protect innocent foreigners. Tactics are necessarily changeable. The policy goal is not. That goal is, one way or another, to contain a rogue power whose location, resources and ambition give it an extraordinary capacity to hurt its neighbors and the world beyond. No one -- least of all those who have the most to gain and lose -- should have to be reminded of the risks of offering a premature one-sided deal to the brutal Saddam Hussein.