HOUSTON. — WASHINGTON IS FIRM: Dig in heels, sit tight and wait for sanctions (spelled b-l-o-c-k-a-d-e) to take effect. When Iraq turns blue in the face, it will presumably vacate Kuwait. No one has addressed what happens then; presumably there will be American uniforms in Saudi Arabia for some time to come -- at least until Saddam Hussein has been replaced.
This scenario is reasonably safe, although Mr. Hussein has several options. Attacking Saudi Arabia is not one; Iraq is likely to emerge from any combat (from minor skirmish to all-out hot war), the loser. While Mr. Hussein's track record shows an awesome lack of concern for human life (starting with Iraqi lives), he's far from stupid, and war on any terms promises unacceptable damage to his economic and military infrastructure.
The blockade at the moment is close to total; only Iran and Jordan are in a position to break it. Unhappy Jordan doesn't dare, and Iran can't provide much practical help. There is, however, a potential hole in the offing.
The U.N. (and thus virtually every nation participating) hedged the sanctions on food and medical supplies; if outright starvation threatens the Iraqi people, these will be exempted. If they are, the sanction impact will evaporate and Mr. Hussein's ability to continue will be prolonged indefinitely.
While sanctions have considerable economic impact, their ultimate power rests on a single factor: Hunger. It makes a nasty weapon; civilians -- the aged, women and children -- suffer most, since, in siege situations, the military has first claim to food.
The world of the 1990s is a squeamish place; charity at all levels starts with the fight against hunger, and, from UNICEF down, hundreds of organizations fight child abuse. The best-known photograph of World War II is the flag-raising on Iwo Jima; Vietnam is photographically remembered almost entirely by a young, naked girl, fleeing an American napalm attack in terror. (That film alone probably did more to erode support for continuing than any other factor.) Millions throughout the world, quite prepared to fight Iraqi aggression, are not prepared to starve Iraqi children.
Saddam Hussein is a master of propaganda, and will play the hunger tune for all it's worth. He has already started food rationing; in due course there will be graphic material of starving children. Food (and medical supplies) will immediately be allowed to enter.
Mr. Hussein, moreover, uses hunger himself, with the ominous threat hostages will starve. For Western hostages (useful to shield his nuclear sites from bombings), it still remains only a threat. But 1 million Egyptians and 400,000 Asians, are trapped in Iraq, and outside the ration system. What they eat is no concern of Saddam Hussein's; their governments are not a major military threat. Indian and Bangladeshi ships sent to repatriate their nationals must ransom them with food.
Yet hunger -- the deliberate starvation of women and children -- has been the ultimate objective of warfare for millennia. Siege tactics predate recorded history, and, indeed, were the staple of warfare throughout the ages. Cities and habitations -- castles -- were walled and designed to withstand siege; food was stockpiled and as many non-combatants (''useless mouths'') as possible driven out, while besiegers hoped outright starvation would bring victory without a costly battle. From Babylon, Jericho and Massada in Biblical times, through Paris in 1871, to Leningrad, (cut off in 1941, it held out for 900 days), besieged cities have fought hunger.
It was a major objective in both World Wars. German U-boats almost starved Britain out in 1917, and again in 1940; Churchill regarded the Battle of Atlantic as the supreme struggle for survival.
But the sword was double-edged; in World War I, the Allied blockade of the Central Powers came close to winning the war -- in Germany, 1917-1918 is still remembered as ''The Turnip Winter,'' and hunger was a major factor in the dissidence that brought the Kaiser down. (In World War II, Nazi willingness to starve conquered populations in order to feed Germans rather blunted the edge of that sword.)
Starving out Iraq, in short, would be the quickest, cheapest and simplest way to bring Saddam Hussein down. It is, however, no longer a weapon which developed nations are willing to employ; only in Ethiopia and the Sudan has hunger been deliberately exploited by government (and rebel) policy.
As George Bush averred, ''We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people'' -- sentiments invoked in Grenada and Panama as well. But we do have a quarrel with the Iraqi people; it is not simply Saddam Hussein, but Iraqi troops, which occupy Kuwait; and Mr. Hussein would be nothing without the support (enforced or otherwise) of the Iraqi people. Pretending we don't make war on civilians scores brownie points at home, salving our hypersensitive consciences. Iraqis may not see it that way.
War is an obscene enterprise; efforts to conduct it by gentlemanly rules are counter-productive.
Donald Morris is a retired naval officer.