Saddam Hussein's contemptuous toying with the president of the United States over dates for a visit to Baghdad by Secretary of State Jim Baker has backfired on the Iraqi dictator. Saddam's insistence on a single date for a Baker visit appears to have strengthened President Bush's resolve, not weakened it as Saddam would have hoped.

Why take such a risk? There can only be one answer, which Baker needs to keep in mind as he probes Saddam's foreign minister Tariq Aziz in Geneva on Wednesday for Iraqi intentions. For Saddam, war is not the worst possible outcome of the confrontation in the Persian Gulf. War is a way of life, not a course of action to be avoided at all costs. Saddam is from a warrior tribe, not from a tribe of diplomats or bazaar merchants.

If there is an act that might yet deflect Saddam from his lifelong pattern of bloodying and humiliating an enemy before dealing with him, Bush's apparently unshakable decision not to send Baker to Baghdad is it. Only if Saddam suddenly understands that Bush is serious about destroying the Iraqi occupation army in Kuwait will he change.

Bush's decision ends Saddam's chance to play the Baker card, which represented the Iraqi's best chance to drag Washington into negotiations, split the multinational alliance and undermine public support for the Bush policy. Instead of asking why Bush will not yield to a Jan. 12 ultimatum for a Baghdad meeting, members of Congress and Americans in general need to focus on why Saddam showed so little interest in the diplomatic track.

As the clock ticks on toward the Jan. 15 evacuation deadline that Bush has rightly set in concrete, Saddam has seemed to see the threat of war as his ally, not his problem. That conviction has weakened both Bush's strategy of scaring Saddam with words and the critics' fence-sitting posture of waiting for sanctions to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

Saddam thrives on battle. It is the United States and the other democracies allied against him that find war repugnant and wasteful. The Iraqi president believes it when he boasts that he can outlast those who who deny him Kuwait and control of the Middle East's economic resources.

War now inspires horror in America and Europe, but this reaction is a fairly recent phenomenon, born out of the carnage of World War II and the futility of Vietnam. For centuries, war was a legitimate human activity for all nations. Hitler led the German people into mass destruction by persuading them that war was a necessary and purifying act for a living nation. It has been only 50 years since Hitler gave war a bad name.

But Saddam's invasion of Kuwait demonstrates that while economic competition has replaced military force as the arbiter of resources among industrial democracies, war is still a tool of economic and social competition in the Middle East.

War remains all too thinkable in the desperate conditions of the Middle East and Africa. Only a few years ago wars of liberation were vaunted as just and necessary, whatever the human costs, in these colonized countries. Even Asia, possessor of economic success stories, is a middle ground. The experiences of World War II, Korea and Indochina have not yet freed Asia from the threat of regional conflict.

Many in the West assume that behind his bluster Saddam wants a peaceful way out and will compromise his claims to all of Kuwait and to paramount status in the Persian Gulf.

But Saddam's history suggests the reverse. He has consistently seen it in his interest to take big risks militarily and accept a settlement only after his enemy proposes it.

That was his approach in his two-year war with the Kurdish rebels who were armed and supported by the Shah of Iran, the United States and Israel. It was also the way he fought his eight-year conflict with the Shah's successors in Iran's Islamic Republic. In both cases, Saddam successfully pursued high-risk campaigns until his foes blinked and called off the bloodletting.

Bush's original offer to send Baker to Baghdad seemed a dangerous gamble. It was criticized within the administration by those who feared that Baker's penchant for dealing made him the wrong emissary. They would have preferred to see National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft go if anyone had to go, but Bush stayed with Baker.

The fear that Saddam would play the Baker card and put the deal-makers in the driver's seat during the crisis' decisive stage was a real one. But Saddam has left agreement to talk to so late that the meeting now is for public opinion purposes, not for negotiating. By waiting, Saddam has robbed Baker of the time and room to broker any solution that the United States could honorably sponsor.

This is a clear indication of his mistaken view that he can still manipulate war into an acceptable outcome. Saddam is a warrior who exists psychologically in a different age, an age in which war was an instrument of first resort.

It is tragic that the international community has to rely on force to stop Saddam from holding the Middle East back in that age. But Americans need to remember as Jan. 15 approaches that it is Saddam Hussein, not George Bush, who has chosen war as the most likely outcome in the Persian Gulf.