This isn't a time for name-calling. The choice in the Gulf is easy only for those who are faking it.

The people who run the government -- in Congress, the administration and the military -- are currently having to make the hardest, most agonizing judgment calls I can remember. Will people on both sides of the Gulf question grant each other the presumption of good faith in having arrived at their positions? Or will the outcome -- whatever it is -- lead to a familiar orgy of scapegoating with cries of "appeaser," "warmonger" and the rest? The answer depends on how we decide to think about the crisis -- and each other -- in the days and weeks ahead. If the capacity of the American political system to function effectively is not itself soon to become a victim of the crisis, a few things will have to happen and a few premises to be accepted.

The first of these premises is that just about everybody engaged in the argument hoped to prevent war and also to eliminate the aggressive threat posed by Saddam Hussein. The dispute has been over how to achieve both ends. The people in Congress who argued for the military buildup and for giving the president the authority to fight did so because they thought this was the best way of forcing Saddam to stand down without a war. Those who took the other side believed that the administration would act recklessly on this grant of power and that the cost in lives plus the widespread regional instability and violence that might well ensue would not be justified; they also believed that the sanctions, diligently imposed, would do the trick. I don't say that all the arguments on the two sides were either elevated or even honest, but by and large this is what the fight at home has been about.

It is ironic that the United States, so often over recent years accused of having an invincibly bloodthirsty nature, is in fact a country that almost always reveals a deep and broad streak of something akin to pacifism when it comes right down to it. We know how to talk about war only when it is a many-times-removed possibility. When it becomes a more immediate threat, the same range of reservations always emerges: there will be terrible death and destruction, it is essentially somebody else's battle to fight in the first instance, the aftermath will be worse than the present, and -- sometimes, but only tangentially this time -- the United States has either no right, no national interest or no moral standing that warrants intervention.

To these traditional concerns have been added the post-sputnik and post-Vietnam worries about our competence both as warriors and as diplomats. The Soviets' successful lofting of the first space satellite in 1957 marked the beginning of a long series of American crises of confidence in our own vaunted technological superiority; and this anxiety was fed in the following decades by a series of failures in various military and scientific enterprises, so that the sardonic prediction that "it probably won't work" is now pretty commonly expressed about any such activity we are asked to embark on. When the military lay out their expectations, people begin to snigger. Vietnam played its central part in all this, too, as have various lesser misadventures along the way: the disaster of the Desert One rescue mission undertaken by the Carter administration, for example, and the relatively high cost and unsatisfactory results of other supposedly small, sure-thing operations.

All this has been complicated by our awareness of the battles to which we commit our forces. It is not just that television has long since perfected its capacity to bring home the awful suffering of distant war. It is also the nature of what it brings. This fall a lot of Americans saw the PBS pictorial narrative of the Civil War, and last year there were movie re-creations of it. People were struck by the fearful mismatch of weaponry with fighting tactics: the explosives were way too powerful for the tiny distances between fighters who were better positioned for swordplay than for firearms exchanges. Likewise, one looks with horror at the arsenals in place in the Gulf region, considering the vulnerability of soldiers and civilians alike to their ferocious powers. The last war that looked traditionally tin-soldier heroic was the Falklands War, and that impression lasted only for a few dockside moments when the pennant-decked ships sailed off to the rousing accompaniment of brass bands; when the music stopped, the whir of Exocet missiles was heard.

So, if anything, the revulsion has become greater in recent years, and this, fed by doubts about the administration's intentions, has made it even harder for people to face up to the policy of using the threat of war as a means of achieving peace. Peace of course could always be achieved by acquiescence in Saddam's expansion and his production of genocidal weapons. The threat of war was employed, in concert with the economic sanctions, to get him to back off without warfare. We appear to be increasingly divided over the wisdom of pursuing this classic policy. We are, after all, still arguing over whether the Reagan years' defense policy and its toughness at the arms negotiations did or did not play a key part in the Soviets' backing down on so many of their Cold-War positions. A lot of people are easy about engaging in this kind of risky power politics only when the whole thing seems academic.

I have been on the side of those who felt Saddam had to be credibly threatened and that letting him have his way this time would inevitably lead to a worse confrontation later, would bring on war, not prevent it. It is an uncomfortable, tenuous and hard-arrived-at stand for me -- the argument against it has points of great merit, and, most important, the arguers against it include people I greatly respect and who are found in this debate in an unaccustomed place. In fact, the classic liberal/conservative, hawk/dove configuration has been smashed by the Iraq events, and it is this that gives me hope that, however the struggle in the Gulf turns out, American political discourse will not degenerate into its own kind of bloodbath. Too many traditional foes are on the same side and too many traditional friends pitted against each other. To me that suggests people who are serious and sincere. This is not an occasion for name-calling. The only people for whom the judgment -- either way -- can have been simple are those who were faking it, those who were leaving out the other half of the deadly equation. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.