On or before Jan. 15, Saddam Hussein may choose to deliver a version of the following speech: "In response to the earnest entreaties of my Arab and Moslem brethren throughout the world, in answer also to the specific recommendations of Iraq's many friends in Europe and Asia, appreciating the interventions of the holy father in Rome and the secretary-general of the United Nations, I have decided to withdraw my armies from Kuwait, a territory that legitimately belongs to Iraq. The withdrawal will begin on Jan. 25 and conclude on Feb. 1. The sacrifice is being made for one reason only, to help our suffering Moslem brethren now enslaved by Israel. I take for granted that the world will now give heed to their pleas for justice, that efforts will be made also to end the unjust rule of the plutocrats who controlled Kuwait until we forced them to flee. Our sacrifice is great; it is justified only by the conviction that winning the world's support for the human rights of millions of our imprisoned and impoverished brethren will at last follow."

Should such a statement not be made, President Bush may choose to deliver a version of the following speech in the fortnight after Jan. 15: "In the last hours, in accordance with the resolutions passed by the United Nations, a massive air attack has been launched against Iraq. Every effort has been made to spare the civilian population of that unhappy country, and the attacks have concentrated wholly on military targets in Iraq, effectively knocking out its air and missile power, reducing to negligible proportions its very substantial atomic, chemical and biological weapons potential. We have also attacked Iraqi installations in Kuwait, with major offensive military capabilities, but have not, to this date chosen to engage the Iraqi forces there by a direct military assault on land. Our interest has been to spare the lives of Iraqi soldiers, forced to serve, as it has been to spare the lives of our own volunteer armies."

If the first scenario, or some version of it, is in fact realized, Saddam Hussein will have saved his military capability for another day and will almost certainly retain his power as head of one of the greater military machines of our time. If the second is accomplished, President Bush will have achieved a victory rather like that of Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands with what he presumably and confidently hopes will follow: a new lease on his diminished presidential authority based on a vastly increased American public approval.

One or another of these scenarios is indeed possible; neither, however, is likely to provide durable or lasting results. In the year 1991, more significant events may be anticipated in that other disintegrating and crumbling economy, that of the Soviet Union, only temporarily pushed aside from center stage.

An Arab leader who knows that there is no way for his forces to be rapidly re-equipped as Nasser's were within months of their obliteration by Israel -- precisely because the Soviet Union has ceased to be the reliable supplier of first resort -- will not casually choose a course that risks the wholesale destruction of his military hardware, the imagined military equivalent of the thermonuclear capability of others. If he is foolhardy enough to risk such a loss, he must expect an American military response based on a preponderant concern to minimize American battlefield casualties.

When one considers that even presidents Roosevelt and Truman, fighting a war with objectives understood and overwhelmingly supported by the preponderant part of the nation, chose always military courses calculated to save American lives, there is no reason for the Iraqi dictator to assume that President Bush will be more foolhardy, accepting major confrontation on the ground, where the hazards of unacceptable numbers of American dead and wounded are greatest.

The president, looking ahead to 1992, is interested in another kind of victory, much like that of Mrs. Thatcher, achieved also at a time when her political fortunes were at a low ebb. A decisive military victory at small cost in American lives that wins enthusiastic public approval even of those who doubted its possibility cannot fail to appeal to a nation told for too long that it was losing its industrial and organizational edge. Whether it also instructs the nation in more profound truths about itself but also about an international system in profound disarray, where repression and terror may soon take on a wholly new lease on life, is much less certain.

The writer is editor of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.