Talk of a diplomatic solution to the Persian Gulf crisis is in the air. The question, of course, is whether such a solution can be reached and whether it would be in the best interests of the United States.

A good solution would avoid war without giving Saddam Hussein a victory. We do want to avoid war, and we don't want to give Saddam a victory that enables him to threaten war again in two to five years, this time with nuclear weapons.

President Bush isn't contributing much when he rules out sending Secretary of State James Baker to Baghdad after he meets in Geneva this week with Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz. That decision doesn't mean we won't get a diplomatic settlement, but it could increase the chances of getting one we won't like.

That's because there will be no shortage of people trying to broker a diplomatic settlement. The PLO's Yasser Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein have been pushing it for some time. And now we have efforts by the European Community, Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid, the nonaligned nations and the French. There will no doubt be others as we approach the Jan. 15 deadline set by the United Nations for Iraq to get out of Kuwait.

What would a diplomatic solution look alike?

The model is the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In that crisis, as in this one, the United States sought to restore the status quo ante -- no Soviet missiles capable of reaching the United States in Cuba.

Then as now, there was no backing down on the basic demand. The missiles had to go then, and Iraq has to leave Kuwait now. Compliance of 75 or 80 percent would not do.

But room for negotiation was found. In the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy stuck to the essential demand for withdrawal while negotiating around the edges. He agreed first not to attack Cuba and second to remove some old U.S. Jupiter missiles that had been aimed at the Soviet Union from bases in Turkey.

Removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey was not publicly announced at the time. It occurred several months after Khrushchev removed the Soviet missiles from Cuba. Had it been known, it would have been widely denounced by some as a reward to Khrushchev for his aggression. In retrospect, however, the deal was a good one.

In the current crisis there are parallels to the issues that provided the negotiating room to settle the Cuban missile crisis. They fell into three broad categories.

The first category concerns a long-standing border dispute between Kuwait and Iraq. The United States has already said that we would have no objection to further negotiations on the dispute if Iraq pulls out of Kuwait and Kuwait's legitimate government is restored. We might further agree to put the issue of the border to a third-party arbitration or to put it to some kind of judicial review to decide who is right about the Rumeila oil fields and the Bubiyan and Warba islands.

The second category concerns post-crisis treatment of Iraq. Secretary Baker has already said that if Iraq pulls out of Kuwait the United States has no interest in attacking Iraq. We might also agree not to press our claim for reparations or compensation.

The third area is so-called linkage. We cannot explicitly link Kuwait to the Arab-Israeli peace process, but we can acknowledge what is certainly true -- we would pick up the pace. There might also be other agreements concerning the distribution of Arab oil wealth.

Is an agreement along any of these lines a good idea? It is hard to judge a solution without first seeing it, but I think there is a way to establish criteria to answer that question. There are two tests, one for the United States and the other for the region.

The test in the United States is whether Saddam Hussein pulls out of Kuwait entirely. Partial withdrawal will not do. If Saddam Hussein withdraws completely, it will be seen as acceptable by the American public, almost regardless of what else is agreed to around the edges.

In the region, the test is more difficult. A diplomatic solution would leave a very powerful Iraq still led by Saddam Hussein still possessing chemical and biological weapons and still developing a nuclear capability.

The anti-Iraq coalition must remain together in order to continue to contain Saddam Hussein.

The test for the region, then, is whether the solution permits continuation of the coalition. If Saddam winds up with too generous a solution, he will look like a winner, and the coalition will begin to fall apart as individual members move to cut their own deals with him.

If the diplomatic solution is a good one and Saddam Hussein is not perceived to be a clear winner, the coalition can stick in order to contain him for the future.

This is our final test.

The writer, a Democratic representative from Wisconsin, is chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services.