WASHINGTON — Washington. "WHEN YOU GET a problem of the complexities of the one that the Middle East has now, and the Gulf has now, I enjoy trying to put the coalition together. And keep it together,'' President George Bush told U.S. Today. Dealing with the Gulf, he confirmed, is more ''fun'' than dealing with the Congress on taxes.
It will be less ''fun'' as a desert winter looms, costs mount, allies offer their own initiatives, available options remain sharply limited and the destruction of Kuwait continues.
To confront Iraq's bold aggression George Bush made a large commitment of American forces, money, power and reputation. What should the president do now?
He can try to preserve the blockade, hoping it will eventually break Saddam Hussein. He can launch a military strike, hoping that selective bombing of military resources will break Mr. Hussein's power and his hold on Kuwait. He can accept a settlement -- negotiated either by himself, by allies or by the United Nations -- that does not meet the terms stated either by the U.S. or the U.N. Security Council. Each option has clear disadvantages.
First, the blockade. Maintaining the blockade requires sustaining the coalition of strange bedfellows that comprises ''our'' side. Some of the members have ideas of their own, as French President Francois Mitterrand demonstrated in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly. And some have competing and compatible priorities, as some Arab nations demonstrated when in the U.N. they rushed to the support of the Palestinian cause against Israel in spite of the Palestinians' ardent support of Saddam Hussein. The blockade will also fail if Mr. Hussein -- who does not mind much submitting his people to terrible hardships -- has more patience and endurance than the U.S. or its allies.
Finally, the blockade can also fail because Iraq's resources may be adequate to meet internal needs. This is especially likely if the Iranian border and Iraq and Iranian pipeline are as open as sometimes reported.
Second, a military strike. Iraq has a large army, but ultimately it would not be able to withstand a U.S. military assault. The cost to the U.S. -- in soldiers and materiel -- could be high, although it is not at all certain it would be. If the Iraqi air force and heavy weapons were destroyed at the outset, their land armies would be severely crippled and could be dealt with by troops from the Arab nations -- if those troops were willing to fight.
Third, accept a negotiated settlement. A negotiated settlement that provided for the removal of Iraq's troops from Kuwait might be accepted by the Bush administration, but such a solution will leave Iraq the hegemonic power in the Gulf. If such an outcome is acceptable, Mr. Bush would almost certainly prefer it be negotiated by the U.N. Secretariat -- in the expectation that criticism would be offset by praise for submitting American military power to multilateral constraints.
The Bush administration must choose its course. The president must also make his decision understanding that if Mr. Hussein emerges from this crisis with his regime and his military forces intact, his image and his power in the Arab world will be greatly enhanced. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Emirates and Oman will be in continuing danger from this man, who has repeatedly declared a personal war against them.
But Mr. Bush is not the only leader confronting unsatisfactory options. Mr. Hussein also has few choices.
He could withdraw from Kuwait, acquiesce in the restoration of a greatly weakened Kuwaiti government and hope to pick up some prizes from a world grateful for having avoided war. This is the only way that Mr. Hussein can be virtually certain of maintaining his position and power.
Saddam Hussein could attack Israel, expecting that such an attack would change the focus of attention, rally some Arab governments to his side, create problems for others and destroy the coalition now assembled against Iraq. Moreover, he would almost certainly enjoy it.
He could do nothing at all, relying on American impatience, changing priorities and natural incompatibilities to erode and destroy the coalition assembled against him.
To succeed Mr. Bush must secure Iraq's departure from Kuwait, the restoration of Kuwait's government and some sort of credible assurance that Mr. Hussein will not again disturb regional peace.
Mr. Hussein succeeds only if he manages to retain his power and stay in Kuwait -- where it should never be forgotten, he still is.
But Saddam Hussein survives to fight another day if he gives up Kuwait and accepts the restoration of the Kuwaiti government. And George Bush might also survive -- politically -- if Saddam Hussein gives up Kuwait even though he retains his military power. The most likely casualties in this scenario will turn out to be the moderate Arab governments the U.S. undertook to protect and the U.S. economy.
What will happen next? George Bush likes building coalitions. Saddam Hussein likes making war. Mr. Hussein does not give ground easily, but he is capable of abandoning a tactic as he did in Iran. George Bush is a natural compromiser who is also capable of surprising boldness. He has laid the groundwork for a military strike and also for turning the whole ball of wax over to the United Nations.
The situation is more unpredictable than the consequences.