War exploded in the Persian Gulf last night because diplomacy failed to bridge the enormous differences between two men, their cultures and their perceptions of the world, and because both George Bush and Saddam Hussein locked themselves into a course of action from which they could not retreat.

On many occasions in American history, the art of diplomacy has averted war and reconciled conflict. It kept the superpowers from destroying one another for 45 years after World War II. It defused the Cuban missile crisis and brought Israel and Egypt together at Camp David. Many conflicts have raged beyond the ability of leaders to negotiate a settlement. In this case, there was little direct effort by Saddam or Bush to face each other and work out their differences.

Instead, according to a wide range of administration officials and outside analysts with experience in the Arab world, Bush and Saddam circled each other for five and a half months. From the very early hours of the invasion, Bush sought gradually to increase the pressure on Saddam, forcing him to choose between capitulation or war. Saddam, once regarded as a pragmatist who would adapt to circumstances, never displayed any sign of flexibility on his basic refusal to give up Kuwait.

As a result, these analysts said, serious diplomacy directly between the two main adversaries never even began. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III went to great lengths to create an unprecedented international coalition to cordon off Saddam. And the Iraqi president tried in vain to break the coalition apart, playing games with "human shields" and inviting emissaries to Baghdad. In the end, as Baker discovered in his meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz last week in Geneva, there was an ocean of misunderstanding between them, and a string of miscalculations that led them to war.

Saddam repeatedly misjudged the intention of the American people to actually use the force that was unleashed against him last night. He misjudged the swift and massive American military deployment that resulted from his conquest of Kuwait and the cohesion of the international coalition. At the last minute, he seems to have missed a chance to hold off the alliance with a gesture toward withdrawal.

Bush misjudged Saddam's intentions even before the invasion, when the United States failed to understand that the Iraqi leader's outsized ambition and his desperation would drive him to invade and occupy all of Kuwait. Bush misjudged the impact that his harsh personal attacks would have on Saddam. And, according to some analysts, Bush misjudged the degree to which he was backing himself and Saddam into corners from which they could not gracefully escape.

Fouad Ajami, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said these huge misunderstandings on each side may have made the traditional notion of diplomacy and conflict resolution impossible. Given Saddam's drive to be a new superpower and given the way Bush cast the conflict in highly charged moral terms, he said, "It was destined we would come to blows."

"Here is a man who glories in war, and rushes toward it and relishes it," he said of Saddam. "What was the room for diplomacy with him? . . . We are going to war with this man because he made it very difficult for this president to avoid a showdown. He made it impossible."

A Western diplomat in the Middle East, who has watched the gulf events unfold at firsthand, said last week, "This crisis illustrates a lot of things, and one of the most interesting things it illustrates is the limitations of parliamentary diplomacy." Once the United Nations had decided to set a deadline for Saddam, he added, "You cannot initiate or execute a policy, you can only sanction and punish."

"What the United Nations did was, it issued an indictment and injunction to Saddam Hussein, saying this is what you have to do before January 15th, before the marshals come to arrest you. It's not a diplomatic process working at all. This is not a situation in which normal diplomacy had any scope."

David Newsome, a former undersecretary of state who is now professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University, said, "The problem is that the president has really only had one objective and that was to make Saddam understand the forces that were against him, and from a strictly diplomatic standpoint to announce that there can be no concessions, no saving of face, that there is nothing to talk about except for him to understand the weight of the military and political force against him. That doesn't leave much room for meaningful discussion."

"From the standpoint of conflict resolution," Newsome added, diplomacy "has not succeeded. The United States was up against a gap in perspectives on what the problem was {that was} so great that it could not be bridged.

"President Bush has seen this in terms of 1939 and not giving in to aggressors. He has seen it basically in terms of Kuwait. {But} Saddam Hussein, and his Arab supporters who have wanted to compromise in some way, have seen it in terms much wider than Kuwait, in terms of past history of the region, the Palestinian issue, and have felt that there couldn't be a resolution unless it was looked at in this wider context," Newsome said. "From the administration's standpoint, that was unwarranted rewards for aggression. From that standpoint, I don't think diplomacy had much of a chance."

Ajami said the roots of diplomatic failure reach back to the way both Saddam and Bush understood the Iraqi invasion itself.

"The Iraqis believed the conquest of Kuwait was a new order of things," he said. "Saddam Hussein believed the conquest was fair wages for the work he had done in containing the Iranian revolution. He thought it wasn't really such a big prize. He had been indulged by the world; many people had looked the other way. This was his application to be the new pillar of power in the region."

Saddam, he added, "thought it would be presented as the new order and the Americans would reconcile themselves to it." And, he said, "The Iraqis never really could get it through their minds that the conquest of Kuwait would constitute a legitimate pretext for so massive an American intervention against them. They never understood the enormity of the transgression."

Ajami said Saddam had only a rudimentary understanding of how democracy works and this hampered any move toward diplomacy. "He had only simple fragments, the {Lebanon} Marine barracks episodes . . . fragments about Vietnam. He never really could understand the voices of a democratic society, that, after all the tumult and all the noise, that a man who is elected president who makes such a public pledge {to reverse the invasion} will summon the force to take Saddam on.

"Despots have always looked at democracies as pampered, effeminate societies," Ajami said. "Saddam is a masculine warrior and {the United States} is a feeble, effeminate society. All great tyrants have had very little praise for the resolve of democracies."

From the view of the Bush administration, the invasion of Kuwait was a stark matter of black and white that could not be negotiated or even discussed in a way that would be considered common in the Arab world. Rather, Bush decided at the outset that Saddam only understood the language of force, and that was the only language the adminstration used.

"That calculation was based on who Saddam was and where he had come from," said a senior administration official who was closely involved in crisis policy-making. "It was based on a man who had presented the image of force and who devours his neighbors. The language of force is one he understands." But, this official acknowledged, "You couldn't guarantee it would be successful."

Bush's own options were limited by the stark choices he presented to Saddam, some analysts said. "When did we go to war?" Ajami said. "When did it become inevitable? It was when the president said, 'This will not stand.' " These early hard-line statements made Kuwait the centerpiece of American policy, and left little room to avoid conflict, he added.

Ajami said Bush's personal attacks on Saddam -- "once you describe Saddam as Hitler, not merely the thief of Baghdad" -- further closed the door.

"If he is Hitler revisited . . . then you don't make deals. That makes one's task of compromise more difficult. Saddam threw down a gauntlet. . . . When the president stands up before the Congress and says this invasion will not stand, that this is not a boast, that's the way it's going to be.

"When Baker meets with the emir of Kuwait and says we've met five or six times and maybe the next time we will be meeting in Kuwait City, these are not the kinds of pledges a great power makes and walks away from with great ease. When Bush made the conquest of Kuwait the centerpiece, we were bound to end up where we did," Ajami said.

Gaddis Smith, professor of American history at Yale, recalled diplomat and historian George Kennan's criticism of American diplomacy as often excessively moralistic and legalistic. "Kennan's basic point was that in international relations you cannot operate on this black and white basis. In domestic law, where there is a consensus and there are courts and juries, you can say you are guilty of this crime or not.

"But in international relations," Smith said, "you have to do the best you can to moderate violence and create as much stability as you can. But you are caught in a tragic situation -- you cannot absolutely eliminate wrongdoing."