WASHINGTON. — WHILE MR. BUSH is visiting the troops in Saudi Arabia, the natural feeling among congressmen is that they should be supportive of his efforts there, or at least tone down their opposition until he gets back. But even for some fellow Republicans, who wish him well in both foreign policy and domestic politics, it is hard not to sound pessimistic about what lies ahead.
Dick Lugar a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, seems convinced that there will be war -- indeed that there must be, unless both Saddam Hussein and Iraq's nuclear and chemical weapons potential are eliminated.
He believes Congress should not just debate the Persian Gulf situation, but take a formal vote. He says it should authorize the president to order whatever steps he sees necessary for U.S. forces in the region.
He suggests language with which Mr. Bush might justify America's going to war with little or no support from its allies, including the Arab nations most directly threatened by Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
He may in this respect be out ahead of the president himself. It may be useful to Mr. Bush to have out there a responsible, thoughtful senator like Mr. Lugar, rather than just reflexive bomb-throwers, to make White House policy seem cautious by comparison.
Yet even in his loyal comments, Mr. Lugar implies that things would seem less gloomy if Mr. Bush had not been so impetuous, and that the president would have more support if he had explained carefully why the United States must risk war.
No one has ever accused Mr. Lugar of tailoring his attitudes to the latest opinion polls, so obviously it was coincidence that his comments yesterday so neatly fit the results of the latest New York Times/CBS survey published a few hours earlier.
That poll showed that 51 percent of Americans expect the U.S. to end up fighting Iraq, that the same number think the president has not adequately explained why he is sending troops to the Middle East, and a 47 percent plurality thinks he has been too quick to send troops rather than depending on diplomacy.
What is an adequate reason for going to war? Fifty-six percent said restoring the Kuwait government and defending Saudi Arabia was not good enough. Sixty-two percent rejected war to protect Persian Gulf oil supplies. But by 54 to 39 percent, respondents supported the idea of fighting to prevent Mr. Hussein from developing nuclear weapons.
Should there be a congressional roll-call on supporting Mr. Bush now, the senator says, most members would not be sure exactly what the vote is about. Mr. Bush should carefully explain that Saddam Hussein and his horror weapons are a ''deadly combination.'' If the Iraqi dictator is not checked now, the cost of stopping him will be much higher in the future: Iran could become the kind of international threat that the Soviet Union used to be.
Had the president spelled this out, there would be little doubt of legislative backing, Mr. Lugar maintains. Yet he opposes the Democratic leadership's current plan to hold public hearings on the situation without an up-or-down membership vote.
Reminded of the history lesson in the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution that essentially gave Lyndon Johnson a free hand in Vietnam, Mr. Lugar says he envisions no such ''blank check.'' Congressional authority would formalize support for specific actions, he says. If the support is not there, it would be best to find that out now, rather than later.
However, the administration is reluctant even to discuss hypothetical situations, much less reduce them to paper for a vote -- and Mr. Bush himself is unwilling now to put the question to Congress. Afraid he might lose, he has told Mr. Lugar he would rather take his chances first on a debate and vote in the United Nations Security Council.
Mr. Lugar thinks the president has been ''not very adept'' in refusing to confer regularly with congressional leaders, preferring to decide when and with whom he will discuss the crisis. He also rejects administration suggestions that this affair is too delicate for Congress to get involved.
Asked whether the embargo on Iraq should be given more time to work, Mr. Lugar asks back, ''If we're going to wait this out, why not with 100,000 [U.S. troops] instead of 400,000? Four hundred thousand seems to portend something more'' than just waiting.
And if the United States must do ''something more'' virtually alone, he says, that is our unpleasant duty as the world's lone remaining superpower.