George Bush's Persian Gulf policy, the most politically dangerous undertaking of his presidency, is showing unmistakable signs that it may not be crowned with the success the president has staked his reputation on, partly because of his own mistakes, partly because of events beyond his control.

Critics of the president, including close coalition allies, certainly cannot blame him for failing to anticipate the resignation of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. But the president himself is widely held responsible for spreading the false impression that he would order war to start against Iraq's Saddam Hussein on or about Jan. 15. That was always a diplomatic, never a military, deadline.

Given general agreement that foreign policy is George Bush's strong suit, problems such as these are multiplying in a way that has handed Saddam a new high card of credibility. At the same time, Bush is suffering from a costly perception of low credibility.

The surprise word that U.S. forces would not be ready for ground combat against Iraq until February flashed the latest setback for the president. Anxious European coalition allies scorn his rhetorical excesses against Iraq, particularly about how Saddam was "going to get his ass kicked" if he did not withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15. When Bush implied that the deadline for Saddam's Kuwait withdrawal was also D-day -- and then was forced by his generals to backtrack -- those allies called it a blunder.

Losses from this new, unwelcome period of wait-and-see, after all the president's tough talk, are now being measured in terms of diminished confidence in European and other coalition capitals. If that mood intensifies, it could cost the United States heavily in crossing the many political and military potholes that lie ahead.

Bush's original plan, a coalition diplomat here told us, was viewed in Europe as an attempt to "frighten Saddam out of Kuwait by heating up the military pressure to the explosion point." But so far, he said, it is not Saddam who has been bluffed by Bush. When the president "goes on postponing" using the power of the largest military buildup since World War II, it looks as though he may be not the bluffer but the bluffed.

As for the Shevardnadze blow, Secretary of State James A. Baker was so upset that he tried to get his good friend and staunch ally on the telephone last week, apparently unsuccessfully. Finding it impossible to obtain accurate information about the true state of affairs in Moscow, as hard-liners coalesce and measure their power, Bush and Baker have not yet been able to assess how grave the Persian Gulf loss might be with a new Soviet foreign minister.

But if Shevardnadze is replaced by a hard-liner who sides with the Soviet military and opposes a U.S.-led war against former ally Iraq, policy makers here know there could be big trouble.

At each step of the way between Jan. 15 and possible war, Moscow could booby trap Bush. It could surreptitiously encourage Saddam to withdraw from only part of Kuwait and then champion negotiations (which Bush has forsworn). It could switch to support Saddam's demand for linking the Arab-Israeli dispute to the Gulf crisis. Or it could seek a new U.N. Security Council resolution capitalizing on anti-Israel sentiment.

Coalition allies of the United States have other worries. When Bush originally proposed that Baker and Saddam should meet in Baghdad before Jan. 15, following a meeting here between the president and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, he ruled out no dates. But when Saddam proposed Jan. 12, he rejected it as too close to the Jan. 15 diplomatic deadline. Once again, that implied war starting around or soon after mid-January, making Jan. 12 dangerously late for the Baghdad session.

Vetoing Jan. 12 for the Baghdad meeting shocked Bush critics within the coalition who still believe a political or diplomatic solution is possible, finessing what could turn out to be a ruinous war against Iraq. They ridicule the idea that a day or two's difference could make the world's only superpower regret an invitation to talk to a small country like Iraq about imminent war or peace.

Bush has talked bravely and movingly about the New World Order. If he botches the United Nations' American-led Persian Gulf crusade in his first attempt at leading the world, the New Order will not be given the courtesy of a decent birth.