The president's announcement of the dispatch of another 200,000 troops and Secretary of State James Baker's trip to determine the degree of international support for military action emphasize that the time is approaching when a choice must be made. America simply cannot afford to let its first post-Cold War act of global leadership drift into a stalemate in which both ends and means have become controversial.

The American objectives have been affirmed repeatedly in United Nations resolutions: unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, restoration of its legitimate government and unconditional release of all hostages. Yet the administration has been strangely reluctant to explain in what way these objectives reflect the American national interest. Americans must not be given the impression that they have a duty to go to war against every evil leader in the world and against every transgression of the international order -- which would make us the world's policeman. The American people need to understand why this specific aggression by this particular leader, if unchecked, will in time threaten their own security and pose ever more difficult choices down the road.

The reluctance to define the American national interest has been matched by vagueness as to what means are required to reach the stated objectives. According to official pronouncements, the U.N. goals are to be achieved by sanctions leading to negotiations if possible, but as a last recourse, by military means. The two approaches have been presented as if they were successive phases of the same policy. In fact, they will prove mutually exclusive, because by the time it is evident that sanctions alone cannot succeed, a credible military option will probably no longer exist.

To achieve the proclaimed objectives by sanctions, at least six hurdles must be overcome: (1) the sanctions must bite; (2) they must be maintained throughout any negotiations; (3) compromise proposals cannot be considered; (4) once the U.N. terms are achieved, arms control objectives must be addressed; (5) the military option must remain intact psychologically, technically and diplomatically during the entire course of the negotiations; and (6) there must be no other upheavals to deflect the United States or to rend allied cohesion.

To state these hurdles is to set forth the practical impossibility of clearing them. For one thing, upheavals in the Middle East are a way of life. In one recent week, the second highest ranking official in Egypt was assassinated, Syria battled Christian forces in Beirut and 21 Palestinians died in Jerusalem.

If the sanctions do bite within a time frame relevant to political processes, Iraq is more likely to offer to negotiate than to surrender. In that case, pressures to ease the sanctions will be difficult to resist. Which democracy will want to be responsible for starvation in Iraq and Kuwait once negotiations are underway?

The real challenge if the sanctions do bite is that the U.N. terms leave no real room for negotiation -- except perhaps the staging of the Iraqi withdrawal. Thus all so-called diplomatic solutions effectively dilute the U.N. objectives while maintaining Iraq's war-making potential and thus confirming Iraq as the supreme military power of the Middle East.

For example, even if Saddam accepts the principle of withdrawal from Kuwait, he has already hinted -- and Soviet presidential aide Yevgeny M. Primakov has confirmed -- that he would define Kuwait as excluding a strip of land containing a major oil field as well as two islands controlling access to the Shatt el-Arab. Would America or the United Nations be prepared to go to war over such a distinction, especially in light of the hints we seem to have given to Saddam Hussein before the invasion that we had no strong views about his border dispute with Kuwait? Similarly, French President Francois Mitterrand's scheme for an election to determine the legitimate government of Kuwait runs up against the reality that half of Kuwait's citizens are refugees and that the majority of Kuwait's remaining inhabitants are not Kuwaiti citizens and hence not all that committed to a Kuwaiti identity.

Saddam's Arab neighbors will surely note that none of the proposals in the public discussion would reduce Iraq's military preeminence or restore Kuwait completely. If they conclude that they will be condemned to live with a dominant Iraq, they will begin their own negotiations. Recent remarks by Saudi Defense Minister Sultan suggest that the haggling has already begun. But will the psychological basis for a military option still exist after months of such inconclusive maneuvering? And without a realistic military threat, how can the U.S./U.N. objectives be achieved?

Many who had urged the route of sanctions seem to have accepted that their strategy cannot reach the stated goals. However, rather than reexamine the strategy, they are watering down what were heretofore common objectives. President Mitterrand has suggested that as soon as Iraq accepts the principle of withdrawal -- in other words, before it actually withdraws -- its grievances against Kuwait could be negotiated. Editorials in leading newspapers have urged direct negotiation between Kuwait and Iraq coupled with some vague arms control negotiation for the Gulf.

The common feature of all these schemes is that they undermine the military option by consuming time, they exact no penalty for aggression or for looting a country or taking hostages and they leave as the only disputed issue the extent of the aggressor's gains. And having faced down the combined might of U.N. forces and of the United States, Iraq would have little incentive to make concessions to the fears of its neighbors in any subsequent arms control negotiation.

To be fair, many who opt for sanctions-induced negotiations recognize this dilemma. They propose to protect a settlement by a new regional security system based on a significant American military presence in Saudi Arabia. I consider this a dangerous mirage. If, after the adamant pronouncements from Washington and the deployment of a large expeditionary force, the stated U.S. objectives could not be reached, no Gulf state would easily entrust its fate to a long-term American presence.

Even if despair led some of the Gulf nations to invite a continued American ground presence, this would at best be temporary and, at worst, accelerate the mounting chaos. The often-heard argument that America proved its staying power in Korea and Europe misses the point. The issue in Arabia is not American staying power but the host country's domestic stability. Conditions in the Gulf are not even remotely comparable to Europe or Northeast Asia. There, American forces contributed to domestic stability; in Saudi Arabia they would threaten it. A substantial American ground establishment would soon become the target of radical and nationalist agitation. Once Iraq has faced down U.S. and U.N. terms, such a force would sooner or later become hostage to revolutionary Iraq, fundamentalist Iran and events substantially out of our control. And no Arab force is available to balance Iraq in the Gulf in such circumstances.

Saddam Hussein's intransigence may well reflect the calculation that every passing week erodes the likelihood that the forces assembled in the desert can be used against him and that if war appears imminent, he can always defuse the crisis by opening negotiations along the lines sketched here. And he will be confirmed in these views by the many recent visitors, both official and freelance, searching to compromise what cannot be compromised.

In short, if the United States is to emerge intact from the Middle East, it must choose a strategy appropriate to its objectives or else choose objectives achievable by whatever policy we are willing to implement. And we should have no illusions. In the immediate aftermath of Iraqi aggression, it was perhaps possible to limit damage by a policy of stabilizing the Kuwaiti-Saudi border. But after the deployment of a vast expeditionary force, its recent augmentation and the administration's unqualified call for unconditional withdrawal, merely stabilizing the Saudi-Kuwaiti border would undermine America's relevance to the Middle East and shake moderate Moslem governments from the Gulf to Morocco, including Egypt and even Turkey.

The administration must decide at what point the sanctions will turn into an alibi to dilute our objectives. Choosing war will be neither easy nor attractive; this is, in fact, the president's dilemma. But that such a decision might have to be made has been implicit in the administration's actions and pronouncements throughout. Precisely because the decision is so grave, it should not be generated by frustration or petulance. Reports suggest that Washington is waiting for a suitable provocation. It is hard to see what more Iraq might do to justify military action then to engage in naked aggression, to systematically violate human rights, to loot and destroy the nation of Kuwait and take 1,000 American hostages.

Secretary Baker seems to have committed the United States to seek U.N. approval prior to any military move. Though he has found encouragement in principle, I suspect that when it comes to implementation we are likely to discover the limits of the principle of collective security. U.N. debates are certain to be protracted, which would give Iraq an opportunity to strengthen its defenses, perhaps to preempt and surely to confuse the issue. Any authorization will almost surely be hedged with restrictions that may defeat its purpose.

Whether the United States acts through the U.N. or on its own, the administration needs to prepare the American people and involve Congress. The president would have to spell out why he insists on the U.N. terms, why they may lead to military action and why an important objective of such a conflict would be to establish a stable balance of power in the Gulf. None of this, he must make clear, will be easy or cost-free.

If the president decides on such a course, it is to be hoped that military strategy remains related to realistic political objectives. Outsiders should not play field marshal. But America has no national interest in weakening Iraq to a point where it becomes a tempting target for covetous neighbors. We cannot want to invite another try at hegemony in the Middle East, perhaps by Iran, perhaps by Syria. If war does prove unavoidable, our objective should be not to destroy Iraq, but rather to raise the cost of occupying Kuwait to unacceptable levels while reducing Iraq's capacity to threaten its neighbors.

I hope that the announced reinforcement of 200,000 men and women for Saudi Arabia does not suggest a commitment to a frontal assault. Perhaps in the end there is no other choice than an attack on entrenched Iraqi positions in Kuwait. But ground combat involving heavy casualties against an enemy tempered by the experience of an eight-year defensive war of attrition with Iran should be an absolutely last resort. Before embarking on it, other approaches must be considered.

I would far prefer a strategy relying on air and naval power and using ground forces primarily to prevent a response. The destruction of the Iraqi military/industrial complex, especially its chemical and nuclear facilities as well as its air and missile forces, would improve the military balance in the Gulf and would speed up the effect of sanctions. Even if one of the compromises sketched above came eventually to be adopted -- a contingency I would regret -- the setback would be eased by the reduction in the Iraqi military threat.

Without doubt, the military option would prove painful and difficult. But these dangers must be weighed against the risks of an even larger conflict later on if a demonstration of American impotence leads to a collapse of moderate governments, to escalating crises and the disintegration of all order.

As the administration makes its decisions, it deserves sympathy for the anguish of its choices and the fortitude with which it has managed events up to this point. It is to be hoped that it can find a way that avoids both a military strategy of total destructiveness and a diplomatic strategy committed to amassing U.N. resolutions -- the progressive disregard of which will at some point demonstrate the U.N.'s impotence rather than an international consensus. But whatever our destination, we must arrive at it by design rather than as captives of circumstance.