It is perhaps time for George Bush and George Mitchell to re-acquaint themselves with the writings of another George -- a fellow by the name of Orwell.

The president and Sen. Mitchell have always seemed wise and temperate men. But their construction of the circumstances under which Congress might debate and vote on a declaration of war against Iraq seems, if not intemperate, then certainly unwise, and almost Orwellian.

We are, the president and the Senate majority leader appear to be saying, at an interim phase in which, it is hoped, the threat of war by itself may be sufficient to achieve Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Debate and the possible declaration of war that might flow from such a debate are still premature, to be deferred until such time as warnings and sanctions have shown themselves to be unsuccessful.

It would be fruitless to dwell on just how (short of any additional act of Iraqi aggression) one determines exactly when the usefulness of nonmilitary means has expired. Let us, therefore, examine why a continuation of the status quo, without a congressional debate on the usefulness or pointlessness of war, is destructive to U.S. interests.

Current U.S. policy toward Iraq offers Saddam Hussein little further incentive for responding to anything less than total war. President Bush has on numerous occasions made it clear that he is prepared to accept nothing less than total compliance with all relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, and that there can be no preconditions.

For Saddam, therefore, to offer a partial withdrawal from Kuwait or a willingness to negotiate at this time invites rejection and implies weakness. It also undermines his strongest strategy, which is to continue playing for time in the hope the allied coalition will eventually self-destruct. The prospect of war, after all, is as corrosive to Western determination as it must be to the Iraqi people. But whereas publicly expressed doubt in Iraq is an offense punishable by imprisonment or worse, the right to dissent is the very foundation of the Western democratic tradition. Time, therefore, may not weaken Western resolve any more rapidly than Iraqi determination, but it will do so more visibly -- and a coalition, like any other chain, is only as strong as its weakest link.

The paradox of what now appears to be U.S. strategy rests in the probability that its commitment to use military force weakens in direct proportion to the time it takes to strengthen that force. In the time it takes to adequately prepare an invasion force, the determination to commit it will have been inversely diminished.

Unless the first blow against Saddam is launched so unexpectedly and so massively as to forestall any further delay, Saddam can remain confident of being able to preempt war at the last moment by the mere suggestion of flexibility.

Let us speculate that the moment comes when Saddam is faced by an ultimatum of war, say within 48 hours. Could he not undermine the cohesiveness of the allied coalition and thereby stave off invasion by the simple expedient of calling Soviet President Gorbachev or French President Mitterrand and offering even a partial withdrawal from Kuwait, or by offering to negotiate a total withdrawal? Surely that would be enough to force such a public outcry to "give peace one more chance" that President Bush would be hard-pressed not to defer the military option.

We can expect over the next couple of months to see the beginnings of allied maneuvers, exercises, feints in the direction of Iraq and Kuwait. Already, for example, the Marines have announced their intention to launch an amphibious assault exercise on a Saudi beachhead. Such moves might, it is true, be sufficient to so unnerve Saddam Hussein that he resigns himself to the inevitable. At the very least, such exercises would force the Iraqis to remain on full alert and to use up fuel, supplies and spare parts that cannot easily be replaced.

President Bush and Sen. Mitchell may, however, have provided Saddam with the reassurance that he will have ample notice of any genuine threat against his forces or territory. The White House rejects the notion that the United States has adopted a war strategy. The implication is that should the administration ever decide to embark on such a strategy, there will be ample opportunity at that time for Congress to address the matter. Such a commitment, however, has never been publicly stated.

Absent any hostile Iraqi action against U.S. and allied forces, the executive branch of government is bound by the Constitution not to start a war without a congressional declaration. Sen. Mitchell seems satisfied that the president understands and accepts that. He declares himself content that the United States can afford to wait until the last moment, the eve of war, before Congress addresses whether a declaration of war should be forthcoming. Surely, though, such a supercharged atmosphere would be the worst of all possible times for a rational debate. And does the passage of time between now and that uncertain moment strengthen or undermine the resolve of America's partners in the region?

It is precisely the knowledge that democracies are disposed to reason that provides Saddam with access to a lever that can defer war at any time. The offer of any compromise, therefore, is the one move he must save until last.

We have heard often of the isolation of Saddam Hussein, of his unwillingness to listen to views inconsistent with his own. We regard that as a weakness and our own system as vastly superior; and indeed, we remain free to raise as many different views as there are citizens of this country.

Our elected representatives, however, remain in adjournment, disinclined to debate the merits and dangers of war. Let us hope that they, and Sen. Mitchell first among them, rethink. A debate can only serve the national interest. It is possible that Congress might refuse to vote a declaration of war. If that turns out to be so, it is better for the president to know the fragility of his political support before he commits U.S. troops to battle.

It is more likely that Congress would stand behind the president and give him the declaration he seeks. If he had it, it would certainly bestow upon him the absolute freedom to use it, but there could no longer be any doubt in Saddam Hussein's mind that, whatever the president decides, he has both the political and the military means to exercise that decision -- and, more to the point, that he could do so at any time of his choosing. Until that time, Saddam can cherish and nourish the spirit of uncertainty; thereafter, he might learn to fear it.

The writer is editorial manager and anchor of the ABC News program "Nightline."