SEN. RICHARD Lugar (R-Ind.) now urges President Bush to call back Congress promptly and seek "an authorization for the president to act" militarily in the Gulf. Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) would have him solicit a "declaration of support." An outright declaration of war, they believe, would be too stark; a concurrent resolution is indicated. Add the rumblings among Democrats to these appeals from major figures in Mr. Bush's party, and you have a gathering possibility of a full-fledged congressional debate on whether and why and perhaps even how and when to take up force against Iraq.

That some in Congress are belatedly recognizing its constitutional co-responsibility in the Gulf is good news, notwithstanding President Bush's preference for a more compliant form of legislative consent. He would be brutally embarrassed if Congress said no, or if it said yes equivocally. Still, the damage would be greater if he headed into what could be a tough and costly war without solid public support. The matter could be avoided while Mr. Bush positioned American forces to defend Saudi Arabia, but his decision to ready them for offense to free Kuwait transformed the American commitment and obliges him to seek open backing for it. Sen. Lugar believes a positive congressional response could convey to Saddam Hussein a necessary message of American resolve.

To win such a response, Sen. Lugar argues, the president must make a more precise and powerful statement of his war aims. He is right, but here lurks the risk of the exercise. The slow-motion pace of events in the Gulf has let Americans mix up procedure and policy. The policy question is whether, other options failing, the stakes require the United States to consider war. But that question is painful, and many people take refuge in calls for procedural fidelity -- for international company and congressional approval. Some of these calls are made in the hope that they will be met, and some perhaps in the expectation that they will not be.

Saddam Hussein is a despot who has already wiped one country off the map, who sits astride a region crucial to the world's economic welfare, who has been ready to build and use weapons of terror and who, if he emerged unchastened from this crisis, might be tempted to further hostile power plays. Against such a figure there is a strong presumption favoring the use of force after sufficient preparations have been made and reasonable alternatives exhausted. But it is also appropriate and right for President Bush to make the case to Congress. It may be his last opportunity to achieve the basic internationally shared goals of restoring Kuwait and steadying the Gulf without war.