AMERICA HAS the right policy in the Persian Gulf crisis but may possess the wrong president to carry out this tricky phase of the confrontation.

The events of last week established irrefutably the need for a clear and ideally inspirational statement to the nation to explain the goals of the potentially bloody conflict we may be approaching.

They also established George Bush's limitations in delivering such a speech.

Bush last week began to show that he understands the need to bring the nation along with him in further expanding the U.S. military force in the Gulf. But he called a news conference, where he enjoyed demonstrating mastery of detail before the press corps, rather than providing a sustained and coherent overview of his case directly to the public.

Moreover, Bush's essential message at the press conference -- wait and see what I am going to do -- was hardly an effective exercise in consensus building. It relegated an American public increasingly restive with his management of the conflict to an onlooker's role.

Bush in his often unfocused rhetoric has at least indicated a standard of failure in the Gulf by demanding Saddam Hussein's withdrawal from Kuwait. But he has not addressed consistently the two other important components of strategy necessary to the speech he avoids: He needs to explain what the consequences of failure would be in terms understandable to Americans. And he needs to define for others, however self-evident it may be to him, what success would be and what it would bring if military force must be used.

The president's inclination to depend on the rightness of his cause to speak for itself is not new. He has routinely rejected aides' appeals to make his many commencement speeches vehicles for soaring declarations because he feels it inappropriate to distract attention from such serious occasions. He and his political advisers in the White House do not edit seriously or bounce back for reworking staff-written speeches, however weak, as was the reflex reaction in the Reagan White House.

Such concern with substance over style is in itself admirable; but at this point in the Gulf crisis it also risks becoming self-defeating. Bush has allowed the nation's attention to wander since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait and has lost support for his policies as a result. "You do not go to war these days over something that is not the top story on television," warns a Democratic congressman.

Bush thus invited suspicion and some ridicule by abruptly trying to refocus the national mind last week with expressions of concern about American hostages in Iraq. He has (properly) demonized Saddam Hussein, but has not made it clear to Americans why many other Iraqis will presumably have to die in Saddam's name. And he has not persuasively explained in any detail the historic opportunities -- and dangers -- the Gulf crisis presents for the Middle East and the world. Out of this crisis will come regional and global changes at least as profound as those that followed Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the military stalemate of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. As those conflicts showed, wars can settle important questions that must be dealt with at a given moment in history, and with positive consequences -- a proposition that seems to be rejected by many of the critics of America's current involvement in the Gulf.

The Six-Day War, which cost Israel 778 military dead, established Israel as a permanent feature of the Middle East landscape. Arab demagogues could no longer propagate the myth that they were about to drive the Jews into the sea. The 1973 Yom Kippur conflict, planned and initiated by Egypt's Anwar Sadat, resulted in nearly 19,000 combat deaths in three weeks. But that war, and the creative U.S. diplomacy that followed, enabled Sadat to go to Jerusalem and eventually sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Both those conflicts responded to Karl von Clausewitz's description of war as a continuation of diplomacy by other means. "Violence should express the political purpose, and express it in a rational, utilitarian manner," Peter Paret, a leading von Clausewitz scholar, has written. "It should not take the place of the political purpose, nor obliterate it."

Bush and his generals must bear that lesson in mind. It is a lesson that the United States, to its great cost, ignored in Vietnam.

In its broadest sense, American success in the Gulf crisis will involve completing and merging the political trends that came out of the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars. Success involves not just Saddam's defeat, but whether that defeat is achieved through his withdrawal in the face of the multinational force Bush has organized, or through direct military action against the Iraqi occupation troops. It also involves setting in place a new Arab political order.

"Saddam Hussein is trying to revive all of the worst features of the recent Arab past," a senior French diplomat said to me a few weeks ago in Paris. "He tries to revive that old perverted sense of Arab nationalism, of Nasserism, that would keep the Arabs enslaved to myth instead of dealing with the reality of the modern world. This conflict in part is about whether the Arab world will remain stuck in the past or move into this part of the 20th century."

Saudi Arabia's high-profile ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, makes the same point about the invasion of Kuwait being the death blow for "an outdated intellectualism of the 1950s about Arab nationalism." Saddam has helped the Arab world understand that "that was a lie . . . . Saddam's defeat will enable Arabs to move into the new reality," Bandar says. The extent of the change that has already occurred in the Arab world has gone largely unnoticed in much of the American discussion about the showdown in the Gulf. As recently as Aug. 1, conventional wisdom on the Middle East would have held that it was impossible that 200,000 American troops would be welcomed on Saudi soil for any purpose, or that the three most important Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, would desert the traditional concept of Arab unity and become military partners with the Americans against Iraq. But that, and more, has happened.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine this month, Michael Sterner, once a leading Arabist in the State Department, observes with a hint of nostalgia that Arab states in the Gulf have had to abandon reliance on "the traditional Saudi policy of consensus-building in the Arab world" and now depend instead on "the willingness of non-Arab, and especially, American forces" to guarantee their territorial integrity and independence. These states know that "it is a matter of life and death for them," Sterner writes.

Put simply, success in the Gulf will result in the creation of new Egypts in the Arab world. Failure will bring new Iraqs and a generation of new wars.

Despite the assassination of Sadat, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and other upheavals in the region, Egypt has stood by the peace treaty with Israel for a decade now. In the process, Egypt has become a more open and politically sophisticated nation at home and a positive force in international diplomacy.

It is not a perfect society; Egypt is a desperately poor, overpopulated nation with only the trappings of a parliamentary democracy. But the solidity of the Egyptian system was demonstrated by the calm national response to the tragic assassination of the speaker of Egypt's parliament last month by terrorists.

Nor will the other Arab states turn into functioning democracies overnight if Saddam Hussein's dream of regional conquest and control of Middle East oil is shattered in Kuwait. But the United States will then be in a position to influence movement in that direction. That's what happened in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict, when Henry Kissinger was able to lay the groundwork for Jimmy Carter's successful Camp David peace-making. If the United States does join the war that Saddam started on Aug. 2, Washington should immediately make clear that it will guarantee that the outcome will respect the territorial integrity of Iraq as well as Kuwait and the other Gulf states.

Only by avoiding a Versailles-type vengeance peace will the United States be in a position to seek the positive outcome that is possible. And only by making Israel feel that the outcome has added to the Jewish state's security, not subtracted from it, will Washington be able to push for the broader peace effort that should follow the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

Against this admittedly optimistic -- but not impossible -- scenario, it is easier to understand the costs and consequences of failure in Kuwait.

Should Saddam remain in power, the other states in the region would then be compelled to obey or emulate him. The United States would be reduced to a defensive policy of pursuing cynical balance-of-power politics in the Arab World, similar to but less effective than Britain's traditional approach to Europe. The region that is at once the heartland of Islamic civilization, the source of cheap oil for the global economy and the overland gateway to Asia will be plunged into years if not decades of chaos and destructiveness.

These are the elements that Bush will have to touch on if he does give the Oval Office speech that announces U.S. forces have been ordered into action in Kuwait. Some at the White House have begun to think about that speech, which must be delivered in sorrow, not in anger. That is, the president must have convinced his public -- and the publics of the countries that have associated themselves with the American effort (including, remarkably, the Soviet Union) -- that he did everything he could to avoid having to deliver it. This, and his domestic troubles, explain why Bush was willing to let the Gulf crisis float away from the center of public concern for a while. But the confrontation with Iraq has endured so long now (the drumroll at three months is already a few days longer than was the entire Falklands War) that Bush faces a new problem: the political management of the circumstances under which the war begins if Saddam continues to refuse to withdraw from Kuwait but commits no new outrage against Americans.

Bush began to address this new concern through the emphasis he and Secretary of State James Baker put last week on the plight of American hostages. After months of carefully downplaying the hostage aspect of the crisis, the president's decision to highlight their situation was probably meant to establish a legal basis for military action rather than to effect a big movement in public opinion.

"The examples of Panama, Libya and Grenada suggest that presidents want to be able to say to Congress that their actions have been consistent with the War Powers Act, even if they challenge that Act's validity," says Rep. Les Aspin, the Wisconsin Democrat who heads the House Armed Services Committee. "The Act authorizes the deployment of troops for the protection of American citizens. That has been the justification used to Congress in recent years when U.S. force has been used abroad."

With the public at large, Bush seems to depend on the rightness of his cause and the instinctive reaction of the American people to rally round when shooting starts. If he can get the fighting over quickly, the support will be there; if he can't, eloquence is not going to save him anyway.

But the president should keep in mind that the old anti-American caricature of the United States as a militaristic power, with an army and a population yearning for new wars to fight, has again been disproved by the doubts and questions that have developed at home during the three-month prologue now ending. It is a man of the left, Gore Vidal, who made the point Bush needs to address in that speech, when he wrote more than 17 years ago:

"The American fighting man has been pretty lousy from the beginning of the republic, and more power to him. He has no desire to kill strangers or get hurt himself. He does not like to be told what to do. For him there is neither duty nor honor; his country is his skin. This does not make him a world conquerer . . . . Like the Italians, we Americans are killers for personal profit or revenge; the large-scale stuff doesn't really grip us."

Overdrawn, like most of Vidal's commentary; but he captures a sentiment of the moment that Bush can no longer afford to ignore if he is to pursue his Persian Gulf initiative to success.

Jim Hoagland is chief foreign correspondent and associate editor of The Washington Post.