President Bush's declaration that he will take Thanksgiving turkey with the troops could mean there will be no war in the desert by Nov. 22. On the other hand, it could mean that he is trying to throw Iraqi President Saddam Hussein off the scent and is planning a surprise attack by that date.

Incoherence is the theme of our Middle East policy. What does Secretary of State James A. Baker III's current tour mean? He got in a little campaign-like melodrama by addressing the forces in the sand to the accompaniment of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Was he there to measure their fighting spirit?

The members of our all-volunteer army -- Richard Nixon's invention to keep down civilian protest -- seem averse to firing in anger; in fact, some of them seem utterly taken aback to discover that enlisting could lead to just that. Apparently they believed the recruiting slogan, "Join the Army, be all you can be." Being all you can be suggested computer training or air traffic control, not shooting and being shot at and certainly not dying in the desert.

The election campaign has greatly distorted the situation in the Persian Gulf. Bush has learned that he can bring total, reverent stillness at rallies by invoking the bravery of our boys and girls and the plight of the hostages. It beats budget talk by a landslide.

Originally, he was determined to be cool about the hostages; now he talks about them as if their treatment could be a cause for war. But war would not serve the hostages, and it would not serve the president: as many as 50,000 casualties have been projected. Appeasement is equally out of the question. He has cast Saddam as Hitler.

So the president lurches on from day to day, sounding belligerent at one stop, conciliatory at the next. Saddam is doing pretty much the same thing.

He, for instance, sent out Information Minister Latif Nassai Jassim to proclaim that Kuwait is a permanent province of Iraq -- that is, forget all about Bush's ringing vow that "this invasion will not stand."

On the other hand, far from walling himself off from critical western voices, Saddam is receiving visits from former German chancellor Willy Brandt and former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, both of whom he will doubtless send home laden down with hostages.

It is with such high-profile visits that he softens the edges of the ostracism that the embargo was supposed to impose.

He tells the French, the Soviets, the Germans, the Japanese and Chinese that they can have all their people back once they promise not to attack him. Obviously, he thinks he is coalition-busting.

Peacemongering is not a popular activity in the Capitol. Everyone wants to be thought of as sophisticated, as understanding that most of what Bush says is signaling Saddam, not them. It is difficult for presidents. They beam different messages at different constituencies sometimes simultaneously, and inevitably, the wrong side tunes in.

Lyndon Johnson knew all about it in Vietnam. In one week, he made a campus speech promising to help Ho Chi Minh with a Mekong Delta project and two days later, in Omaha, laid out U.S. dissenters as "nervous Nellies." But Ho Chi Minh and the doves heard the Omaha speech and were offended, and Johnson's consensus unraveled.

Bush would do well to find a consistent posture. Some days he was the ferocious partisan, on others, the statesman. Some days Saddam was Hitler, other days, he wasn't. It wasn't good campaign strategy, and it wasn't very good foreign policy.

Clovis Maksoud, erstwhile Arab League ambassador to the United Nations who resigned in protest from the Arab League when Iraq invaded Kuwait, says that "Saddam is no Hitler, and George Bush is no Winston Churchill."

He thinks, in short, that the rhetoric should be toned down, that Saddam and Bush should "stop talking at each other and talk to each other."

The most comprehensive criticism of Bush's conduct has come from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). He said on the Senate floor Oct. 26:

"The president has proclaimed a New World Order which he has not defined. The president has of a sudden invoked standards of international law by which we have not, within this very year, abided ourselves. The president has set in motion a set of actions . . . economic sanctions in the gulf without any effort to explain to the American people how long it will take to make them successful and how painful . . . the consequences, and above all, he has not sought to obtain from this Congress, this Senate, a statement of cooperation, consultation and support with definitions. They have decided to go it alone."