Congress is about to acquiesce in a war it doesn't want, for objectives it finds unconvincing, launched by a president it believes lacks the constitutional authority to declare war.

This is not a prediction that war is about to start in the Persian Gulf; I'm still inclined to believe war can be avoided. It is merely an acknowledgment that no matter how many of them believe that the president has been too rash, too bellicose and too inflexible in his dealing with Saddam Hussein, members of Congress will not challenge him in any meaningful way.

For Congress to get constitutionally picky only days before the Jan. 15 U.N.-imposed deadline for Iraq to withdraw its troops from Kuwait would constitute a political and diplomatic disaster. Not only would it embolden Saddam; it would weaken Bush's hand at the critical moment, diminish his standing in the world and cause him to lose face.

Question: Why is it that we can see so clearly the need for Bush to save face while remaining blind to the face-saving requirements of Saddam?

The quick answer is that Saddam doesn't deserve to save face. The brutality of his annexation of Kuwait and the menace he poses to the rest of the region make his utter humiliation a virtual necessity.

But as with Bush, the necessity for some face-saving option for Saddam is not merely personal. It has implications for regional stability, international economics and the long-term relations between the United States and the Arab world. The price of Saddam's humiliation (assuming he won't simply turn tail and run) could be unacceptably high in dollars, in blood and in world peace.

And yet President Bush seems determined to deny him any basis for face-saving: no international conference to discuss the whole range of problems in the region, no "linkage" with the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, no negotiation.

"I heard nothing," Secretary of State James A. Baker told reporters after Wednesday's fruitless meeting with his Iraqi counterpart, "that suggested to me any Iraqi flexibility whatsoever." He neglected to mention his own inflexibility -- that he had gone to Geneva not to work out the terms of a mutually face-saving settlement but merely to repeat the long-standing threat: Get out or die.

From the viewpoint of the administration, of course, there is nothing to negotiate. It is Iraq, not the United States, that created the crisis. It is Saddam's "naked aggression," not the international response to it, that has brought us to the brink of war. It is Saddam's inflexibility, not Bush's steadfastness, that accounts for the diplomatic stalemate.

And it's all true. But it is also true that Bush misjudged when he transformed the Iraqi aggression into an Iraq-U.S. confrontation, even though we have less to lose in the region than either Iraq's neighbors or the rest of the oil-hungry Western world. The misjudgment has been exacerbated by our massive deployment of troops, the transformation of our military presence in the Gulf from a defensive to an offensive posture, by the decision not to rotate our troops and by activation of the National Guard.

The point of these actions was rational enough: to convince Saddam that we were ready to fight if he didn't quit Kuwait. What Bush didn't consider, however, was what might follow if Saddam refused to budge. Bush drove Saddam into a corner only to find himself trapped in that same corner. He can't change tactics now without losing face, and that will be the major consideration in congressional debates between now and Tuesday.

Without some major stroke of luck, however, saving Bush's face could result in losing thousands of American and Iraqi lives. Is that kind of luck in the offing? The best chance for now rests with the persuasive powers of U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who left last night for Baghdad, and with France, which reportedly is trying to lead the European Community to undertake some new initiative that could resolve the crisis short of war.

The secretary general and the French, at least, see the importance -- to peace and to world order -- of giving Saddam what Bush steadfastly refuses to grant: some face-saving escape from the mess he has caused.

NOTE: Wednesday'scolumn referred to "703 homicides last year in Washington alone." That figure was for the Washington metropolitan area. The number for the District of Columbia was 483.