CHICAGO — Chicago. THE PERSIAN GULF crisis swims just below the articulated public consciousness, dark monster of anticipated dread. Public opinion has not found form. War still is image and imagination.
The gulf was not a factor in last week's elections. The idea, bruited by some in Europe, that President Bush might launch an invasion to win the election, displayed ignorance of just how contradictory American opinion now is on questions of war.
There is a scenario of confidence. One hears it from officials and commentators who describe it as leading to the shining success of a permanent coalition of democracies, led by the United States, keeping the international order.
The scenario has air power quickly crushing Iraq's rocket-launchers, artillery, even its tanks -- ''smart'' missiles will take them all out. The invasion of Kuwait is led by Egyptian and other Moslem troops whom the shocked and demoralized Iraqis will not seriously resist. American forces will merely back up and clean up. It will be over in days. The political map of the Middle East, and the international order, will have been redrawn.
The pessimists lack a formulated scenario, or have too many: There are more possibilities to go wrong than to go well. The articulate pessimists include war opponents from the established peace movement, but also professionals who think the military risks and potential political costs much too great to accept.
Mainstream popular pessimism is inarticulate, but it is there. The very silence about the gulf, outside press and professional policy circles -- the fact that not even politicians want to talk about it -- is demonstration of that apprehension.
It is this which stays Mr. Bush's hand. The optimistic scenario is the only one he can afford. But no one can guarantee it to him. As a result, he temporizes. Yet each day spent strengthening the American expeditionary force -- another 200,000 men, more armor down from Europe, more air power in from the fleet -- provides one more day for Saddam Hussein's men to dig.
The Vietnam war was not won by high-tech. It was won with the shovel. There are a lot of shovels in Iraq, and a lot of peasant soldiers used to hard work: digging tanks into the protecting sand, digging fire corridors and tank traps and pits, canals for burning-oil obstacles, trenches, air-raid shelters.
Mr. Bush put himself into this situation with remarkable lack of foresight. He started out defending our ally, Saudi Arabia, from -- the threat of invasion. That was necessary. He escalated to demand Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. Reasonable enough; and the international community agreed. He escalated again to demand the removal from power of Saddam Hussein -- the ''new Hitler'' -- and permanent suppression of Iraq's capacity for modern warfare. This amounts to a demand not only for unconditional surrender but for something like the permanent occupation of Iraq. It implies the eventual use, if necessary, of the methods necessary to produce Germany's unconditional surrender in 1945. The American public is not ready for that.
The public is not only unprepared for the costs of a serious war but remains somewhat bewildered about what the war really is about. If there was ever a faraway country of which Americans knew little it was Iraq. No American felt threatened by Iraq or by Saddam Hussein. They had never heard of him. Most could not have found Iraq on the map. They don't feel threatened today, unless they have a relative hostage inside Iraq, or in the desert, or liable to go there to fight.
Iraq's Arab and Israeli neighbors may have been threatened but the United States was not and is not. The case for war rests on an argument about the consequences of non-war: if Saddam Hussein is not ''stopped.'' It is the nature of such an argument that it cannot be proved. It rests on a hypothesis, which convinces some and fails to convince others.
But it is dangerous for a leader to take a democracy into war on a hypothesis. The public has to be convinced of the necessity and justice of a war if it is to sustain the effort, and accept the casualties, a major war must be expected to produce.
The Korean and Vietnam wars both were connected with the larger ideological and strategic struggle of the Cold War, which Americans did believe just and necessary. Yet even then, both wars were fatally compromised by the eventual loss of public support. It is scarcely conceivable that the public would sustain a war against Iraq remotely resembling those wars.
Hence Mr. Bush has to believe in the optimistic scenario. It has to be over in a week. But will it? He doesn't really believe that it will. So he postpones and temporizes, and sends even more forces to the gulf.
But the president can't back down now. If Saddam Hussein holds to his course, Mr. Bush has to choose war. The day he does that, a countdown starts inside the public mind and consciousness, a countdown heavy in consequence for the president, and for the nation.