The call by France and Germany for an emergency meeting of the 12 foreign ministers of the European Community raised interesting questions regarding Europe and the Gulf crisis.

Previously, the 12 had vowed good intentions to coordinate their Gulf policies, but those vows had come to little. Why then, as the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline approaches for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, did foreign ministers Roland Dumas and Hans Dietrich Genscher suddenly call the European Community into session?

Was their move designed to take the decision for war or peace out of the hands of the Bush administration? Did they believe their diplomats would be better able to persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw? Or did they believe they would be better able to reach an accommodation with him?

If their initiative was not intended to challenge the United States or to open a gap between it and Europe, why did they convene the one major international arena in which Americans are not present? After all, the European Community has no tradition of common action on foreign affairs. And the Gulf crisis had not been declared a "European" issue. Moreover, why should Germany -- which has accepted no significant responsibility with regard to the Gulf crisis -- suddenly seek to play a major role?

We do not need to ask why the Bush administration reacted cautiously to the Franco-German initiative. Bush policy-makers manifestly feared that the move by France and Germany would be taken as criticism of U.S. conduct, even if not intended as such. And they manifestly feared that Saddam would perceive the European initiative as evidence of disunity in the coalition aligned against him.

In fact, there are potentially important differences between the United States and Europe with regard to the Gulf -- differences that could spell success or failure.

Although the foreign offices of both France and Germany said Iraq must honor the U.N. demand to withdraw from Kuwait, French President Francois Mitterrand told the U.N. General Assembly that once Saddam Hussein had released foreign hostages and announced his intention to withdraw, negotiations between Iraq and the coalition could begin on the withdrawal's timing and related details.

The United States -- and the U.N. resolution -- affirm that there can be negotiations only after the "complete and unconditional" withdrawal of Iraqi forces and after restoration of the legitimate government of Kuwait. For the Bush administration, that also means no "linkage" of Iraq's withdrawal to other conflicts in the region.

But Mitterrand said as recently as New Year's Eve that France would be willing to discuss all Middle Eastern problems at one or more international conferences once Iraq had withdrawn. "With Kuwait occupied, nothing is possible; if Kuwait is evacuated, everything is possible," he said.

The United States, on the other hand, had refused to go along with an international conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict and supported direct negotiations between Israel and her neighbors, as called for in Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

Beyond these specifics looms a larger difference between America and its Franco-German friends.

Perhaps because the French and Germans have had closer ties to Iraq, perhaps because they bring less zeal to foreign affairs, perhaps because they are less farsighted than Bush, they do not seem as powerfully persuaded as he of the importance of the political and moral issues involved. They do not seem as indignant about the destruction of Kuwait or as concerned about the danger Saddam poses to Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt or Israel. They do not seem as concerned about opposing aggression, much less about building a new world order. That is undoubtedly why they have not committed as many military forces as the United States to this effort. Or as much money.

It is unclear whether the last-ditch effort of France and Germany will be any more effective than the Bush administration's efforts in dealing with Saddam.

This is, after all, the man who wrote in his autobiography: "I've always preferred to make my decisions without the involvement of others. My decisions are hard, harsh, just like my desert. I've always related my behavior to the desert. Usually it looks so quiet and kind, but suddenly it erupts with rage, mightily fighting the gusts of storms and gales. And this outburst of the desert's rage gave me the feeling that I was on the brink of the end of time."

Indeed, Saddam is mobilizing 17-year-olds, digging in, like a man who feels he is on the brink of the end of time.