WASHINGTON -- The United States cannot afford to allow the conflict with Iraq to drag out indefinitely and is determined to end the stalemate quickly, according to a senior Bush administration official, who sought to explain the president's decision to virtually double the size of the U.S. force in the Persian Gulf.
An ultimatum to Iraq's Saddam Hussein could be the "next step," said the official, who has been involved in every facet of Mr. Bush's plans for the gulf operation.
"It is important to put some finite perspective" on the standoff, the official said Friday. "We're not prepared to give this guy unlimited time." With so much now at stake, he added, failure would be "pretty catastrophic."
While some officials had suggested that war was likely, others in the administration and in allied governments had stressed the possibility of an extended stalemate -- one lasting well into next year and perhaps longer -- during which the United States and its allies wouldwait to see if economic pressure would force Mr. Hussein to yield.
The decision to add massive new U.S. forces to the gulf marks a rejection of the latter strategy. The administration, officials made clear, is now set inexorably on a path that will lead to war unless Mr. Hussein backs out.
While economic sanctions have had some impact on Mr. Hussein, they have not reached "the point where he is seriously constrained," said the official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "Waiting two, three years to starve him out is not a good idea.
"It is still not crystal clear that Saddam Hussein is taking us seriously," the official said. "He's still playing games -- some of them with considerable skill -- to divide the coalition."
Until Thursday's announcement of the expanded U.S. deployment, Mr. Hussein's apparent belief that "time is on his side" might have been "rational," the official said.
Saudi Arabian officials cannot tolerate a huge U.S. presence in their country for as long as would be needed to "starve him [Mr. Hussein] out," the official said. In addition, U.S. commanders cannot afford to keep huge U.S. armed forces in the gulf for an extended period.
"As weeks grow into months, you lose your edge, morale goes down," he said.
Outside analysts have expressed similar sentiments. "The United States will either have to go to war early next year or face extremely difficult decisions," said Marvin Feuerwerger of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The United States will not be able to maintain 400,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region for long without drastic measures," such as resuming the draft, Mr. Feuerwerger said.
As a result, administration officials have designed the second phase of the U.S. buildup to allow a military strike to be made quickly, before public support for Mr. Bush's policy begins to erode seriously.
In Vietnam, the official added, the United States deployed troops without being able to say that "in the end, we're going to be able to wrap this up." This time, the administration is determined to "make sure we can deliver whatever it is that is necessary."
Until now, the official said, not one of the many foreign governments that have sent emissaries to Iraq "has come back with any sense that Saddam Hussein is wavering . . . that there is any hope."
The decision to add more than 200,000 troops to the deployment was designed partly to get ready for war if Mr. Hussein refuses to withdraw from Kuwait and partly as a dramatic gesture "to affect [Mr. Hussein's] thought processes . . . to convince him that we are serious."
The events leading up to the decision began weeks ago with the realization that Iraq had deployed far more troops in Kuwait than U.S. military officials initially had contemplated.
At first, U.S. planners believed that a U.S. force of about 230,000 troops would be adequate to defend Saudi Arabia and to invade occupied Kuwait, if need be. But after the deployment began, Mr. Hussein started sending in reinforcements, eventually doubling his forces to an estimated 430,000 troops on the ground.
In the weeks ahead, U.S. diplomats are expected to push for U.N. Security Council approval of a new resolution that would provide standby authority to use military force if Iraq's occupation of Kuwait continued.
Mr. Bush consistently has maintained that the U.N. Charter's provisions for self-defense provide authority for U.S. forces to attack Iraq at the request of Kuwait's government. But the administration believes that approval of a more explicit U.N. resolution would help solidify the international coalition against Iraq.