President Bush is converting the United Nation's powerful case against Saddam Hussein into a personalized vendetta, repeatedly using the pronoun "I" to assail the Iraqi dictator as a modern-day dragon to be slain by the American St. George.

The president seems to be building new obstacles to a peaceful settlement, with demands going beyond U.N. resolutions that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait, release hostages and restore the emir. If Saddam is a monster to be humiliated, as portrayed by Bush, the prospect of peace fades, because there can be no peace with a beast ruling Iraq.

Bush has been cautioned by concerned friends here and abroad to cool his rhetoric or risk Saddam's rejection of the U.N. demands. That would mean war. The fact that Bush does not appear to have accepted that advice might mean he either is oblivious to the danger of war or welcomes a conflict. "Hell no," he said Thursday when asked whether Saddam deserved a concession for freeing all the hostages.

It is possible that Bush is using tough language to cloak movement toward some settlement formula. Under this theory, a Bush mindful of the old "wimp" image and the fury of anti-tax Republicans when he broke his pledge wants to minimize sellout charges in advance.

But close observation of the president in recent weeks suggests he is deadly serious. His example is being followed by subordinates. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has used a classic metaphor of cowardice in depicting Iraq's strongman. "In the final analysis," Cheney told the American Defense Preparedness Association Monday evening, "Saddam Hussein {must} go back to Baghdad with his tail between his legs."

The president's own words three days earlier may have inspired Cheney's demeaning image of Saddam's crawl to Baghdad. Reacting to Iraq's decision to free all hostages as demanded by the United Nations, Bush hinted that he wanted Saddam publicly humiliated: "I don't care about face. He doesn't need any face." Recoiling from this rhetoric, one highly respected Arab ambassador here told us that Saddam "will opt for war rather than humiliation."

A hawkish Democrat, respected and occasionally consulted by the president, wonders whether that is what Bush really wants: to taunt and demonize Saddam to the point where he is provoked into hostile action. That would persuade even anti-war Democrats that war is unavoidable.

This Democrat contrasted Bush's tough talk with President Eisenhower's refusal to be drawn into any direct comment against Chinese Communist leaders during the near-war struggle over the offshore islands in 1955. In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, with the United States exposed to imminent nuclear attack, President Kennedy followed Eisenhower's example and ruled out political or personal rhetoric against Soviet and Cuban rulers.

But close Bush advisers reject the notion that the president is seeking to provoke Saddam into war. One White House source said Bush never has entertained such a prospect. A second aide, privy to Bush's inner thoughts, told us the president often refers to his (and the U.N.'s) fight against Saddam as good vs. evil or right vs. wrong, with no in-betweens. That simplifies decision-making.

The president's rhetoric is matched by tough actions. When Jordan's King Hussein tried to find a diplomatic solution for Saddam's takeover of Kuwait and refused to join the U.S.-led U.N. force in Saudi Arabia, Japan was secretly approached by the Bush administration. It would please Washington, Tokyo was told, if Japan "took its time" in delivering a $200 million loan to Amman promised before the Gulf crisis.

Western diplomats aware of that undercover move by Washington called it an effective way to pressure Jordan. But one Middle East specialist inside the administration considered it stupid. Jordan was in a classic dilemma, needing both the loan from Tokyo and good relations with Saddam. After a delay, the first installment of the Japanese money went to the king's coffers.

Now with the unexpected confrontation about dates for a Saddam-Baker talk, rhetoric from the president and his key advisers will bear closer watching than ever. A harsh word here or a clenched fist there, as Bush exhibited on many front pages and TV screens last week, will tell the Algerians to butt out.

That could slam one of the last doors before Secretary of State James A. Baker III's visit to Baghdad, where the president insists he will permit no negotiations. It is hard to imagine Baker, a master of the domestic and diplomatic deal, going all that way to serve Saddam with a nonnegotiable ultimatum. But that is the message conveyed by his boss in a dragon-slaying mode.