THE ESCALATION of President Bush's rhetoric about Iraq and American hostages has led some to believe that he will soon order military action.
On the best information available, any such early turn to force is not likely. Apart from all the considerations of policy and law, military experts indicate that it will be another month at least before the United States has the necessary forces in the Persian Gulf.
Nor is it convincing to suggest, as some do, that Bush has talked tough just before Election Day for domestic political reasons -- to get voter attention away from his performance on the budget. That would be dangerous, and quite inconsistent with the way he has handled this crisis from the beginning.
Why, then, has the president begun to speak in emotional terms about hostages and U.S. diplomats caught in Kuwait? "The American flag is flying over the Kuwaiti embassy and our people inside are being starved by a brutal dictator," he said on Wednesday. "I have had it with that kind of treatment of Americans."
Such statements by Bush and Secretary of State Baker evidently had two purposes. One was to signal Saddam Hussein that the president was losing patience and might well turn to war. The other was to refocus the attention of the American public on the gulf and stiffen its resolve.
But if so, the statements seem miscalculated. On reflection, they show why the president should have stuck with the course he was on -- and should return to it.
From the start Bush had played down the hostage question. By doing so he made sure that it was not a serious limitation on his freedom of action. He had plainly learned from the terrible experience of President Carter, who found the issue of the hostages in Iran driving his policy.
Saddam wants his hostages to be the issue up front in people's minds. That is why he comes up with a new gimmick every day or two, releasing some hostages because of their nationality or state of health, now making the disgusting offer to let families visit those he is holding. He wants attention to be on the hostages. Bush should not.
The heated statements are miscalculated in a deeper sense, too. They point Americans toward a belief that we must succeed in getting Iraq out of Kuwait at once, or our effort and the world's will have failed.
Again, that is a view that Saddam would almost certainly like to see take hold in the United States. He would like Americans to show impatience, a short attention span. It would suit him well if our public concluded that his aggression must be undone within a short time or he will have won -- and we then might as well give up.
What Saddam has to fear most is patient determination. United Nations sanctions are already beginning to hurt Iraq, running down its industry and its development projects. It has been able to sell almost no oil. The longer the coalition against him holds together, the worse it will get for him.
Patience is also an essential virtue for Bush in terms of the last resort, making war. For he must know, and Saddam knows, that for serious, sustained military action an American president must have the support of his people and their representatives in Congress.
Members of Congress made the point bluntly when they met Bush this week. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said: "Nobody asked the president to rule out a military option, but many of us told him to make sure that we don't use the military option out of impatience." Rep. Dante Fascell of Florida said any claimed further provocation by Iraq had "better be real."
Just before Congress adjourned, 82 Democrats in the House signed a statement prepared by Rep. Ronald Dellums of California. It said that the consequences of a war in the gulf would be "catastrophic," that sanctions must be given every chance to work, and that if Bush thinks force is necessary he must ask Congress for a declaration of war.
That statement, signed by nearly a third of House Democrats, shows that congressional support for war cannot be taken for granted. It will require a convincing demonstration by the president that he and the United Nations have gone as far as they can on the course that he originally set: the course of collective economic and diplomatic pressure, with force as a last resort.
Bush needs to do some more educating on the stakes in the Persian Gulf. He needs to talk about strength and patience in resisting aggression -- and why they go together.