It's hard to know whether President Bush's behavior toward Iraq represents an action in search of an objective, an objective in search of a pretext or a pretext in search of domestic and international credibility.

The president says our troops are in the Middle East desert for two key purposes: to protect Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi invasion and to undo the invasion of Kuwait. But even buying his contention that our military presence is in support of the principle that "naked aggression" cannot be tolerated, and that it has only minimally to do with ensuring a supply of relatively cheap oil, how will that principle be enforced?

Bush seems to have hoped the massive presence of U.S. troops, augmented by multinational forces and sanctioned by the international community, would be enough to intimidate Saddam Hussein into withdrawing from Kuwait and permitting the restoration to power of the Kuwaiti royal family. He also seemed to imply that he would launch an attack on Iraqi forces if they were not voluntarily withdrawn.

Well, Hussein didn't withdraw and the United States didn't attack. So what now? Having failed to take immediate military action, Bush appears to be hoping for some triggering action from Hussein to justify an attack.

What if Hussein is smart enough not to provide that trigger? Do we remain indefinitely in Saudi Arabia while he remains indefinitely in Kuwait? Do we withdraw our forces, knowing Iraq could not only retake Kuwait but also take Saudi Arabia long before we could again move troops back into the region? Do we wait for Hussein to attack Israel?

Bush apparently has no plans for dealing with a patient but unintimidated Saddam. An American attack without further action on Iraq's part would threaten the anti-Iraq coalition -- particularly the Arab part of it -- and transform America into the beast of the Middle East. What should we do, and by what rationale?

One of the more interesting answers to that difficult question is supplied by Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, in that magazine's November issue. Lerner's proposal represents his attempt to resolve his conflicting instincts as an anti-war liberal and as a staunch supporter of Israel. In brief, he would link U.S. destruction of Hussein's military machine to a solution of the Palestinian question: a linkage he is convinced would serve the interests of the United States, international justice and Israel.

He would begin immediately with an international conference on the Middle East in which Iraq would be a participant, with the triple goal of dismantling Iraq's offensive military capacity, establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state and working out a peace accord between Israel and the Arab states. "Imagine if through such a conference Saddam agreed to the dismantling of {Iraq's offensive military capacity} in exchange for a general solution to the Middle East's problems. What would be so bad about this kind of linkage? Some argue that just as he showed tactical flexibility in making peace with Iran, so Hussein might also be willing to yield at an international conference, if in doing so he could show himself to be the true hero who helped create a Palestinian state. Giving him that prestige would be a terrible mistake," says Lerner, if he still had the offensive military capacity intact. "It would be much less of a risk if it had been permanently dismantled."

And if he refused to accept such an agreement, the United States and the international community would retain the option of military force to accomplish the same end. The conference he has in mind, says Lerner, would have one major advantage. It would raise "the right set of issues by thinking in terms of a comprehensive solution rather than the kind of partial and misguided one that would come out of the war Bush has planned."

"However disgusting we may find the moral perversity of a murderer like Saddam Hussein, we must also always keep in mind the larger historical context that made a man like him possible -- the pervasive sense of so many in the Middle East that they were being exploited by Western interests and by local Arab allies of those interests."

I don't know that Lerner's scheme (unfairly summarized here) would work. But it does seem clear that there will be no long-term peace in the region -- for Israel or for the world -- so long as the Palestinian question remains unsettled.

And if American fighting men and women are to risk their lives, better to do so for long-term peace, security and stability than for the limited goals Bush has articulated: restoration of the Kuwaiti royal family and cheap oil.