A number of readers have wondered how I could write a series of columns urging the president to avoid going to war in the Persian Gulf and then, as soon as war breaks out, urge Americans to support the president's war effort.

The reasons have to do with lessons learned in high school. It's easy enough to get into a fight. Ending a fight short of clear-cut victory or defeat is much harder. Avoiding a fight can be toughest of all.

As any schoolboy can tell you, it takes a rare combination of courage, insight and smarts to avoid a fight while keeping your manhood intact. It requires the ability to show restraint without having it taken for weakness, the insight to provide a graceful exit for your opponent and the intelligence to change the subject to one of mutual interest.

Bush, to his shame and our national peril, couldn't manage the most difficult option. Now that the fighting has begun, the hope is that he can manage the second hardest: stopping short of unambiguous victory.

The problem is that simply walking away, particularly after you have thrown the first punch, works only with an opponent who fears you more than he values his own reputation as a tough guy. Otherwise, you risk retaliation at the time and place of your opponent's choosing or, at the very least, the indignity of having him boast -- credibly -- that you chickened out when you discovered he was no pushover.

And it's not just a loss of face that is at stake in the Gulf. For Bush simply to bring the troops home now would leave matters worse than they were before Jan. 16. Saddam Hussein would be seen as the tough little guy who chased the big bully off the schoolyard, and his stock in the Arab world would soar along with Iraq's hegemony in the region. No neighboring country would then dare resist his aggression, knowing that U.S. assistance could not be counted on. American interests, ranging from peace to oil to Israel, would all be in increased jeopardy. Saudi Arabia and the emirates would be sitting ducks for Saddam's ambitions.

But if quitting in the early stages of Phase One, the aerial bombardment, is politically and militarily difficult, quitting in the middle of Phase Two, engagement of Saddam's forces on the ground, would be a hundred times harder. So far we have had only minimal loss of life. Ground fighting would increase the casualties to the point where the choices would be surrender (as the American public grew sick of the body bags) or an escalation that would destroy the coalition Bush so carefully built, even if it succeeded in defeating Saddam. So what's left? Perhaps the best thing Bush could do is to continue air strikes against military and paramilitary targets, weakening Iraq's war-making capacity to the point where we could declare victory and leave.

Such a course would leave Iraq with its huge army largely intact, but so what? How would it be in our interest to neutralize Iraq only to deliver regional dominance to the likes of Iran? There are far worse outcomes than allowing Saddam to keep his army while divesting him of his weapons of mass destruction. And some of these outcomes will be ensured if Bush talks himself into believing that his no-more-Vietnams pledge requires total victory.

Look at what has happened already. All our Peace Corps missions in North Africa and the Middle East have been shut down because of the fighting, as have our libraries and cultural centers. The closing of our international schools could bring back the old days when our military and diplomatic families sent their children off to school in Rome and Geneva, ending an element of cultural exchange that has existed since independence swept the region. All these are casualties of war that don't make the headlines.

The early hopes that this would be a short war are already fading. As one diplomatic observer noted: "No war in the Middle East is short. The war between Iran and Iraq is 3,000 years old. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a continuation of the ancient war between the Israelites and the Philistines, David and Goliath. Without some miraculous end in the next few days, our conflict with Saddam could drag on, and pulverizing Baghdad won't be the end of it."

As with playground fights that we weren't clever enough to avoid, the best hope of mutual face-saving may lie in outside intervention. As my diplomat friend put it, "What if someone comes along and says, 'Time out. You've both made your point. Bush has proved he can destroy Iraqi military facilities, and Saddam has achieved linkage. Can't we talk it out from here?' "