In the first weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait, President Bush vowed that the invasion "will not stand," suggested that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should be overthrown and declared that "our way of life" is at stake in the Persian Gulf confrontation.

But in the last week or so, the president and his top advisers have been shifting toward a more sober assessment of the situation, toning down their rhetoric and fashioning a less grandiose strategy to guide what may be a long and difficult standoff with Saddam. According to high-ranking officials, this strategy is focused in the near term on expelling Saddam's forces from Kuwait, and in the longer term on eviscerating his military strength and frustrating his quest for weapons of mass destruction.

The talk of toppling the new Adolf Hitler has been muted for now. So have the words about defending a way of life. The administration is making a fresh effort to calm a restive Congress by seeking to spread the cost of the massive military deployment among the allies. And Bush is trying to cast the confrontation in more international terms, as "the world against Saddam" and as a portent for a new era following the end of the Cold War.

According to those involved in the administration's planning, several factors are dictating this approach. One is the need for some breathing room until the largest military buildup in decades is completed, and to give time for another round of diplomacy. Another is the administration's need to respond to the concerns of allied nations and Congress, both jittery about a precipitous slide toward conflict. A third is the desire to focus on long-term objectives that are realistic and acceptable at home and abroad.

This shift in approach was evident in Bush's response at his news conference Thursday to a question about the possibility of overthrowing Saddam. "We ought to get on with the business at hand, the shorter-run business" of "making right the situation in Kuwait," he said. National security adviser Brent Scowcroft told USA Today last week, "We can't necessarily solve all of the problems relevant to Saddam Hussein, some of which go back a number of years, like his possession of chemical weapons and so forth. Not necessarily do they have to be solved at this particular time."

According to insiders, there has been no simple blueprint for managing the confrontation with Saddam. Rather, the administration has sought to spearhead the global isolation of Iraq while frequently adjusting its tactics in an effort to hold together its support abroad and at home.

For example, the United States at first moved unilaterally to enforce the naval embargo -- firing shots across the bow of an Iraqi tanker -- but when other countries, including the Soviet Union, insisted on a U.N. umbrella for any such enforcement, the administration pursued it. Likewise, Bush at first rushed U.S. trooops to Saudi Arabia's defense, but then, to satisfy concerns at home, he proposed last week sharing the expense with other nations.

In yet another example, when Bush met with members of Congress last week, some expressed concern that Bush was overreaching with his strong rhetorical fusillades against Saddam. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said in an interview that it was a mistake for Bush to compare Saddam with Hitler because it would lock the United States into only one course of action -- going to war to stop him. Biden said that when this was raised with Bush, the president, while acknowledging he would not be disappointed if Saddam were overthrown, emphasized that this "shouldn't be a policy we are tied to." Biden said he "came away reassured" that Bush was not automatically driving toward war.

Although the confrontation remains unpredictable, administration officials outlined what they described as the evolving U.S. strategy for the crisis.

The near-term goal is to force Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait, either through pressure from the international economic embargo against Baghdad or, if provoked, through military means. Although Saddam has made several diplomatic overtures to the United States, policy-makers believe that there is no point in negotiating with him directly now, when Saddam is under pressure. In part, this reflects a calculation that the United States still has a strong hand and should not make any concessions.

"What's more likely is that he'll be the guy who makes the first serious move, and it won't be with the United States, it will be an Arab solution," one senior official said.

The administration has been purposely vague about what kind of diplomatic solution it could accept. Theoretically, if Saddam agreed to a settlement that met all U.S. objectives, including withdrawal and restoration of Kuwait's legitimate government, release of the hostages and guarantees of "stability in the Persian Gulf," it might be accepted. But few officials now think it is realistic that Saddam will just walk out of Kuwait or surrender his large military machine and his ambitions to become an Arab superpower.

Moreover, they do not want to entertain scenarios for a negotiated settlement now because it could quickly weaken the resolve of some nations that have lined up against Saddam while alarming others, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the gulf states and Israel that want a more aggressive response.

Absent a provocation, the administration also needs more time before making decisions about military action. "It may be weeks before we have a preponderance of forces needed to deter aggression," Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said. "The heavy tanks are just getting there. Most are bobbing out on the high seas somewhere. Time is on our side, in terms of getting ready." In the next few weeks, Bush also wants to line up enough commitments to ensure that the loss of oil from Iraq and Kuwait will be offset from other sources to avoid major market disruptions, Lugar said.

In the long term, Bush's chief objective now appears to be "containment" of Saddam's military might. According to officials, the invasion of Kuwait has already changed the outlook in the region and in the global community. "The real Saddam Hussein has been revealed to everybody and nobody is going to want to go back to the status quo ante," a senior U.S. official said. "One's ability to contain him looks very different."

Officials speculate that by containing Saddam from the outside, they can create changes inside Iraq over the long term. "In reality this is a regime built on two pillars -- abject ruthlessness and the ability to use power and force," the official said. "If one pillar has been eviscerated, it's likely to have some effect on the regime. The objective is to contain him so he can't use his coercive ability" in the region. But this official acknowledged: "It will take time. Who knows when, why and how?"

Administration policy-makers were not explicit about how they could eventually demilitarize Iraq, short of all-out war, but one long-term objective now getting renewed attention is to remove Saddam's chemical weapons capability and deny him nuclear weapons he has been seeking.

Leonard S. Spector, author of a forthcoming book by the Carnegie Endowment, "Nuclear Ambitions," estimates that Iraq would not be in position to build nuclear weapons until the latter half of this decade, assuming it could continue to smuggle in materials around international safeguards. In the past, he said, Iraq's "incremental advance" in nuclear technology was "never enough to galvanize" the world's attention. "I think that's changed now," he added, suggesting that any final outcome in the confrontation will have to include new restrictions on nuclear and chemical facilities inside Iraq as well as a more general demilitarization. "I think people can now crystallize the distinction between non-nuclear Iraq and nuclear Iraq. We can all visualize what it would have meant if he had the bomb now."

On a larger scale, Spector said, "You can't have a situation that returns us to the day before the invasion of Kuwait, because that means you are one day away from another invasion of Kuwait."