IRAQ, SAYS Speaker Foley, is an "issue of conscience." But that's to say that only one answer is possible. In fact, Iraq is an issue of judgment. Conscientious legislators have different views about it. That is what makes the congressional debate on Iraq so excruciatingly difficult.

That the United States has large stakes in the outcome of the Gulf crisis is no longer a contentious issue. The threshold argument in Congress is how best to pursue those stakes -- by the threat of war or by further reliance on sanctions, diplomacy and the military buildup. On this matter, as we say, conscientious people can differ. There are expert analyses to support several courses. It is a close call.

But Congress is not dealing merely with this essentially tactical question. Having chosen to wait until this late moment to address the crisis in a formal this-counts way, Congress finds itself pinned up against the Bush administration's determined, United Nations-sanctioned effort to enforce the U.N.'s Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. So a second argument -- what we would call the more urgent argument -- necessarily comes into play: whether to try to make the Bush enforcement strategy work. This is not simply a matter of supporting the president, although it is partly that. It is a matter of supplying the president with the vote of confidence, the showing of support, to strengthen his hand at the moment when conceivably this powerful sort of strengthening of his hand can influence the calculations of Saddam Hussein and win him over to the withdrawal that is favored by almost everyone in America.

It is no longer seriously disputed that Saddam Hussein is a menace to regional peace and global order and had best be reined in sooner so that he does not become an even greater menace later. This is what the American government has attempted to do. Now comes the squeeze. Can there be any question as to how Saddam Hussein would read a congressional vote that denied President Bush the authority he seeks to use force in conformity with international mandate and national policy alike? Does anyone think he would not take heart from such a vote?

A war in the Gulf could have incalculable and horrible effects, and we are not calling for the country to launch an attack. But we do support putting in the hands of the president -- a president who personally knows something about war -- the authority to make a more plausible threat in these eleventh-hour circumstances of President Hussein's pre-deadline countdown. Our judgment is that Congress, by deciding to authorize the president to conduct war, materially improves his chances of achieving peace. It is a risk, and we would take it.