THE SPLIT developing between the Soviet and French approaches to the Iraq crisis and the American approach would be less unsettling if it seemed more the product of design. There is a case for used-car-lot diplomacy, one "salesman" playing the soft touch and the other the tough guy. Unless some subtle maneuver has eluded us, however, that does not seem to be the situation here. While President Bush is firmly insisting that Iraq's contempt for United Nations resolutions could yet lead to war, President Gorbachev is saying (in France) that it is "unacceptable to have a military solution." To Washington Saddam Hussein is a match for Hitler, but to Moscow and Paris he is a worthy partner in a settlement. These differences seem less nuances contrived for diplomatic effect than embarrassments emerging among countries formally pledged to face the crisis as allies.

The person most alert to these strains is Saddam Hussein. He is strewing hints of a policy change across the diplomatic landscape. His evident purpose is to shed the role of aggressor and be accepted as a moderate struggling to save the region from an obsessed and dangerous George Bush. To the Soviets and French he apparently has offered to release his thousands of hostages if the two governments will make a public commitment to a peaceful solution. Such a commitment would, of course, crack the Security Council consensus on which the U.N.'s encirclement of President Hussein rests.

Especially at a moment when Mr. Bush's domestic frustrations are in plain view, there is not much point to his going around declaring that a war option still exists. The effort puts a burden of policy justification on him when that burden had better be left on Saddam Hussein. The message of military readiness is more reliably sent by the stationing of allied forces and the dispatch of reinforcements. In the United Nations resolutions -- a new one on reparations was adopted this week -- the United States already has a broad, right, necessary and agreed platform for an allied (not just an American) political settlement. That Saddam Hussein is testing to see whether he can split the alliance and whittle down the U.N. terms does not mean he is going to get away with it. Washington need not stand nervous and bewildered while this form of bargaining goes on. It should be deepening its consultations to draw the allies toward a common position on when and how Iraq's defiance will leave no choice but force. That is the best way to make allied diplomacy work.