As war in the Gulf gets closer, the international aspect of the resistance to Saddam Hussein fades in size and importance. Increasingly the conflict takes on the cast of an old-fashioned one-on-one American-Iraqi, George Bush vs. Saddam confrontation. The embargo and isolation imposed on Iraq by the allies and the resolutions passed at the United Nations are real, useful and comforting to a point. But with a rising possibility of war, these measures turn out not to have moved the crisis very far out of the older context of independent or unilateral American policy-making. A genuinely new "post-Cold War" internationalist framework waits to be born.

The United States will evidently bear nearly the full military brunt of any open hostilities, plus by current calculations the lion's share of the economic costs. Some Americans grumble at this unbalanced distribution of the war burden. But overall, short of a long-shot assertion of independence by the Democratic Congress, the American political system appears ready to sustain the imbalance.

For its readiness to carry the load, of course, the United States gets to run the diplomatic strategy and call the military shots. This is only fair. The allies stand to share considerably in the hoped-for benefits (a subdued Saddam, a stabler Gulf) of an American success, and to escape not only the direct costs but also the worst collateral effects (general Arab backlash) of either success or failure. But their limited participation reduces their claim to tell the United States how it should address the disproportionate risks that it has elected to assume. It puts on the allies a further obligation, which they are largely accepting, to speak in support of American strategy.

Most of the official talk about American engagement in the Gulf now relies on references to vital American interests. Vital interests lie in a continuum which starts with geopolitics (regional stability, oil flow) and extends to concepts like the national reputation for constancy and the investment of national and presidential prestige. By definition, vital interests are those which cannot be left to the discretion of others and which justify Washington in deciding how to assert them in its own way.

Not so long ago the Bush administration underlined the purpose of creating a new "world order" by bringing the collective pressure of many nations to bear against Iraqi aggression. Liberals who might otherwise have kept their distance were drawn into support of the president, for a while, by the hope of using the crisis to set a precedent and build a structure of collective security. That is still regularly cited as a goal of American policy and as the best possible culmination of events that are in train. Still, the paler copy of "world order" that is emerging neither compels the alliance to share fairly in paying the freight nor invites the alliance to share equally in deciding policy.

Last fall it briefly seemed otherwise. The Soviet Union suggested, as a condition for endorsing a military option, that an international force be created under international command -- a real "blue helmet" operation. But Washington understandably balked at a crisis-time experiment in putting American troops into battle under untested U.N. authority. Moscow was not prepared to commit its own troops, which meant it had no leverage to bargain for its scheme. In the end the U.N., under heavy American persuasion, simply voted to authorize each member nation to use force as it saw fit.

The United States has striven for and won substantial international support for its policy -- enough to use with some effectiveness in the rising political debate on the home front. But it has not won from allies either the extended military and financial support that would help it allay the corrosive American resentment of foreign "free-riders," or the kind of deeper political support that would let it enlist the idealism of our blue-helmet internationalists. This leaves it vulnerable politically on two flanks to constituencies whose anger at Saddam Hussein is conditional -- depending on fairer burden-sharing in the one case and deeper internationalism in the other.

But only somewhat vulnerable. On the foreign level, Bush already has a free hand to turn to force after Jan. 15 if Saddam continues to flout U.N. decrees. At home, restiveness has yet to rise to the level of a check on a possible presidential decision to go to war. As the president heads into the Iraq countdown, he has achieved in fact a very broad measure of freedom of action for his chosen Gulf policy. By the international community and by Congress, he has in effect been handed the capacity to make it primarily an American show.