The rising price being paid by President Bush to build his global coalition against Saddam Hussein was registered at the Paris peace conference last week when Mikhail Gorbachev easily barred access to the three Baltic nations seeking to regain their freedom from the Soviet Union.

Diplomatic suspicions were raised that the United States helped Gorbachev keep out Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which the Soviets brutally seized in 1940. The purpose: to win Soviet support for a United Nations resolution approving force against Iraq for its brutal seizure of Kuwait.

That adds to the price Bush is paying. He met with Syria's President Hafez Assad even though Syria remains high on the U.S. list of governments supporting terrorism. The harshest cost may be tacit agreement that most of the "international" force assembled to fight Iraq disappears to the rear once combat starts. That means that if war comes, casualties will be almost exclusively American.

Although U.S. officials refused to admit it, there were many signs that Bush privately supported Gorbachev when he threatened to torpedo the Paris conference if the three imprisoned Baltic nations were allowed in, as both France and Denmark urged. Without U.S. opposition, Gorbachev treated the Danes more harshly at the conference that ended the Cold War than hard-liner Leonid Brezhnev ever had at its height.

Getting Gorbachev's consent to the U.N. resolution authorizing force to free Kuwait clearly has precedence over the Baltic campaign for freedom at such an awkward time. Even so, the Chinese are so negative about war in the Persian Gulf that a U.N. Security Council veto by them may negate the apparent U.S. support for Gorbachev's Baltic policy.

No U.S. representative turned up at Latvia's National Day celebration in Paris Nov. 19. Nor did Bush make a single reference to U.S.-backed Baltic demands for self-determination in his Paris speech about the brave new world of freedom that he is trying to create in Europe.

The U.S. Treasury last week abruptly canceled the visit of Deputy Assistant Secretary Bruce Bartlett to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, to discuss problems of moving to a free-market economy. A Treasury spokesman told us the trip was "inappropriate." It would certainly be inappropriate for Gorbachev, who wants to run economic reform out of Moscow, not from Soviet republics seething with nationalism.

The final costs of backing down from long-standing U.S. policies are not fully known, especially in the treatment of Syria's Assad, who is anti-Saddam for his own purposes. The very fact that the president of the United States sat down with him in Geneva was a major victory for Syria.

While it is worth exploring aspirations to join Washington's team now that Moscow seems to be out of the game, Assad is no fool. He and every other world leader being importuned by Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III know the United States will pay a bundle to recruit them against Saddam.

Cutting much closer to domestic U.S. politics are the costs of almost exclusive American casualties if combat begins. A sober warning came largely unnoticed last week in a report from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who said that a war resolution by the U.N. Security Council "is going to look like a vote by other countries to let the United States go to war."

In the first effort of any U.S. political leader to make a systematic listing of what our allies are doing, Aspin's conclusion was: not enough. He warned that Americans "won't stand for our allies sitting out the fighting while Americans are dying."

But Pentagon sources say privately there is little doubt that most U.S. allies in the Gulf will be "sitting out" combat. Even the highly-touted British force, still numbering less than 15,000 but with reinforcements said to be on the way, is woefully low on modern tanks.

As for Arabs, Egypt is cited as the best example of a fighting ally but hardly will be shoulder to shoulder with its American comrades. "The Egyptians will be in the rear lobbing artillery shells," a diplomatic source said, ready to move into Kuwait only if the Americans can make it safe for occupation. This is in no way intended as an aspersion against Egypt. To U.S. commanders, foreign forces in the line with Americans only spell confusion and trouble.

Bush seems to have agreed to Saudi Arabia keeping an average $150 million in windfall profits every day since Saddam seized Kuwait. According to Aspin's analysis, that amounts to a $10 billion windfall -- far more than the Saudi financial help extracted by Bush. But in contrast to Japan and Germany, Saudi help has been profligate.

The president's energetic trip to Europe and the Middle East had a double goal: to spell out to American troops what was at stake and to firm up the military coalition. In both missions, he made abundantly clear he is getting ready for war, no matter what the cost.