THE POSSIBILITY of an early war in the Gulf remains real, and it is important to remember that whether or not this comes about is in effect up to the aggressor, Saddam Hussein. This must not be lost sight of in the related other activities now going forward. European and Arab diplomatic initiatives are visible, though not very vigorous. Most of the public attention is focused on whether the United States and Iraq will find their way into what would be their first direct high-level talks.

The two countries are maneuvering in a context of demands that such talks open quickly and, further, that they become the "negotiations" that Iraq invites and that the United States so far properly rejects. President Bush has sought to circumscribe the content of any such talks and to make sure the United States is not dragged into negotiations that would be nothing more than an Iraqi dodge to evade straightforward compliance with United Nations resolutions. The point remains that Iraq has to get out of Kuwait, either voluntarily or as a result of force. The demands for talks/negotiations are heard not just on the international level, where they come from almost all members of the coalition represented in the military ring around Iraq. They are also heard at home, where many voices contend that it is unthinkable for President Bush to contemplate war until he has exhausted all reasonable opportunities to free Kuwait by the means of diplomatic contrivance, economic pressure and military threat.

The talks are necessary. It is possible that their central purpose -- to arrange Iraqi compliance with international resolutions -- cannot be accomplished in a single brief American-Iraqi contact. The Bush administration had sought to convey the impression to Saddam Hussein that he faces an imminent onslaught very soon after Jan. 15. The military threw a bit of a wrench into that by saying out loud that their forces would not be fully prepared for action in January. But this needn't mean an open-ended delay. That date was never a real "deadline" or inflexible command to open fire instantly; it was an international authorization for use of force when the moment was judged to be right. Few would dispute that military readiness, along with a demonstration of diplomatic diligence, must be an essential condition of American military action in the Gulf. The military option becomes more credible when the troops are ready.

There is another essential condition of military action, one germane to the meeting that President Bush is to hold with congressional leaders at the White House today. American forces ought not to be ordered into battle, and a large and uncertain war begun, before Congress has accepted joint responsibility with the president for war policy. No decision so great in its implications for American lives and American interests should be taken by one branch on its own. Needless to say, a declaration of war, if that were the choice, could be made only by Congress. But even a less far-reaching decision, say, to prepare military action but to hold an attack in abeyance pending continuation of the embargo, the exercise of diplomacy and recruitment of more allied aid, would have full gravity only if it were the product of joint deliberation.

Plainly, the president is reluctant to inhibit executive options by starting down a path of consultation with a recalcitrant legislature. He has a point: debate may lead to procrastination, delay and the diffusion of American purpose. This would be a terrible outcome. Congress shows another sort of reluctance -- to accept responsibility for any course of action at all. This would be unforgivable.

Saddam Hussein may indeed take some comfort from American debate and hesitation, and this makes it right for George Bush to insist that any debate be conducted expeditiously and not allowed to become in itself a factor taking the pressure off Saddam Hussein. The requisite deliberations can be accomplished without policy paralysis and endless delay. To send American troops into battle without first building a solid political base for them is to copy the worst feature of the national experience in Vietnam. No one should be warier of the political marooning of the American expeditionary force than those who already lean toward early military action.

A full-scale congressional debate on war policy is not to be confused with congressional hearings on this or that aspect of the situation, or with briefings conducted for legislators at the White House. Useful as both of these exercises can be, they cannot muster the authority of a formal procedure. Those who feel a military action may be necessary sooner or later to bring Saddam Hussein into international compliance, those who feel sanctions, diplomacy and military preparation constitute the right approach and those who oppose military recourse under any circumstances should be equally ready to join this exercise.