President Bush, maintaining his tough no-concessions, no-compromise stance toward Iraq, said in a television interview to be broadcast tonight that the United States has not faced an issue of such importance as the invasion of Kuwait since World War II.

"It's that big, it's that important," Bush said of the U.S. role in forcing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's retreat. "Nothing like this since World War II. Nothing of this moral importance since World War II."

The comments came in an interview with Bush by David Frost that will air tonight on public television. It was taped in the Oval Office on Dec. 16, a few days before the president left for Camp David, where he has spent most of the last 12 days of the Christmas and New Year's holiday.

Bush returned to Washington yesterday afternoon and spent an hour and 20 minutes in a meeting with his top foreign policy advisers to discuss the gulf crisis. It was not immediately clear whether the administration had decided to offer a new date for direct talks with Iraq.

"The president decided he wanted to get together with his senior advisers," said White House spokesman William Harlow. "They were all back in town and the president wanted to sit down and talk with them face to face."

The participants included Secretary of State James A. Baker III; Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney; Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; national security adviser Brent Scowcroft; and his deputy, Robert M. Gates.

In the Frost interview, the president harshly denounced Saddam as "the aggressor, the dictator, the rapist of Kuwait," and maintained that the chance for a more peaceful world will be lost "if we give one single inch to placate" Iraq.

Bush said that if the United States goes to war after the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline, he hopes "it would be over in a few days, but what happens, realistically, is hard to tell." At the conclusion of any military action, he said, "I want every single {U.S.} foot soldier and airman out as soon as possible" with a multinational peacekeeping force of some sort put in place.

The president also offered a somewhat pessimistic view of the situation in the Soviet Union, and an optimistic reading of the economic situation in the United States, where he sees a mild recession that will be in effect for "not too many months."

On the Persian Gulf, Bush said it is "not acceptable" to have any conditions for Saddam's withdrawal. "Halfway withdrawals or, well, 'I'll do it tomorrow' excuses -- that is not good enough." Bush would not venture beyond his standard answers in discussing what he might or might not do between now and Jan. 15 and thereafter.

Unlike a recent Time magazine interview in which Bush said his "gut" assessment was that Saddam would withdraw without military conflict, in the Frost interview he ventured little on how the Iraqi leader may act in the days ahead. The president did say he believes Saddam "doesn't know what he is up against" and does not believe in U.S. willpower. "On both fronts, he is still unconvinced. And so, we clock right on down to a deadline," Bush said.

The president reiterated his pledge that should he decide to use military force, it will be massive and the military will not have its "hands tied." In response to a question on whether air power alone could "settle" a conflict with Iraq, Bush touted U.S. air power and pointed out that Iraq was able to continue its battle with Iran because it had air cover. In a battle with the United States, Bush said, "he would not have air cover of any kind. . . . We have awesome air power. And we have awesome ground power there."

On the Soviet Union, Bush acknowledged that he is "worried" as the economic conditions worsen and as leaders of various Soviet republics assert increasing independence from Moscow. Asked if he believes the worst is now over for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Bush took the more pessimistic view. "I'd probably say there is still a deterioration," Bush said, adding, "I think his problems are getting more complicated."

On the domestic front, Bush acknowledged that in some areas of the country "we're clearly in a recession" and at least an economic slowdown elsewhere. But he said he agrees with economists who predict a mild recession and a quick recovery within six months, and said the lowering of interest rates, not other government efforts to spur recovery, offers the only hope of moving toward a quicker recovery.

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.