IN BAGHDAD, the ever-more-cynical Saddam Hussein has announced that, in the absence of war, he will release his several thousand remaining Western hostages over three months, starting at Christmas -- all this evidently to try to close a January-March window of military opportunity that George Bush has sought to open in order to develop a more credible military option to free Kuwait. The Iraqi president then ordered an additional quarter-million troops into Kuwait; they will top, in raw numbers, the 200,000 troops that President Bush ordered up as reinforcements two weeks ago. No doubt the two initiatives complicate any allied decision to turn to arms.

In Paris, however, a more complex equation has been unfolding. In a conspicuous summit setting, President Bush tried and failed to win Mikhail Gorbachev's consent to a prospective United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force if Iraq continues to stiff-arm the 10 earlier resolutions condemning its conduct in Kuwait. The Soviet president advised "patience in the quest for a political solution." But he also pledged to be firm and determined in pursuing U.N. goals.

That last affirmation is useful. In his various hints of openness to a political solution, Saddam Hussein has stated the goal, as his government did again yesterday, of an "in-depth dialogue" in which both sides would make "appropriate sacrifices." The implicit suggestion is that allied and especially American recognition of his status as an equal player could be as important to him as acknowledgment of his specific political ambitions. Almost all of the allies, however, have dug in their heels not so much at a dialogue, which is conceivable in circumstances of Iraqi respect for U.N. resolutions, but at the bizarre notion that aggressor and victim should be equally ready for "sacrifices." This is the very definition of rewarding aggression, which the United States and, again yesterday, the Soviet Union reject.

Meanwhile, the sanctions are on. To "work," they do not have to bring Saddam Hussein to his knees immediately. They have only to show him -- and he, of all those calculating their effects, will know them best -- what damage they will do over time. His attempts to use illegally taken hostages for political purposes suggest he is intent on what will happen in the next few months. His striving to deflect a military initiative is inconsistent with the scorn he has expressed for American determination and will.