SILVER SPRING — Silver Spring. SHOULD the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf in the next few months? One cannot envy President Bush having to make this extremely difficult decision. Some, however, fear that the president has effectively taken the power of choice out of his own hands, that he has painted himself into a corner from which he can only proceed to war.
Is this true? Once the military build-up is complete, is an ignominious embarrassment the only alternative to attacking Iraq? No, there is a graceful -- even a constructive -- way to back off.
Imagine that the international community has refused to give its blessing -- in the U.N. -- to the American use of military power that the president is obviously contemplating. And imagine that the president decides that the costs of a unilateral -- essentially vigilante --American attack would be prohibitive, in terms both of lives and of our relations with the peoples of the region. The president could then stay his hand, making the following speech to the American people and to the world:
''Some months ago, I declared that Saddam Hussein's ruthless invasion of Kuwait would not stand. I reaffirm that pledge today: at the end of this crisis, Saddam Hussein will have nothing to show for it.
''To reward aggression at this point in our history would squander a historic opportunity to create a new kind of world order. With the Cold War finally over, the peoples of the world have an unprecedented opportunity to create a new kind of world order, one where might no longer makes right.
''More than anything else, that is what this crisis is about: whether the world our children live in will be one of anarchy or one ruled by international order. The American people can be proud that the United States has led the way, in this present challenge to international order, in confronting the aggressor. As leaders of the free world, we remain ready to bear more than our share of the cost of asserting right against Iraq's unjustifiable use of might against its little neighbor.
''It is, however, not yet the consensus of the world community that the time has come to use force to restore justice. Some believe that the increasingly punishing bite of economic sanctions, combined with the ongoing threat of terrible military punishment from the multinational forces arrayed against Iraq, may yet compel Iraq to comply with the demands of the world community -- without further bloodshed.
''Maybe they are right. Maybe they are not. For our part, we are ready to force this crisis to a conclusion now. But we are part of an international community, and we recognize that all the world's peoples have a stake in the outcome of this situation.
''Most important, we recognize that the best way for this crisis to help establish a new world order is for the community of nations to act together. Already, the cooperation of the world in meeting this threat has been unprecedented. For any one nation to act on its own now to force the aggressor out would undermine the very BTC principle of order we hope the nations of the world will now establish.
''Conversely, the cause of world order is strengthened if even the most powerful nation in the world shows itself willing to restrain itself in deference to the judgment of the world community that the time is not yet right for enforcement of its resolutions.
''The achievement of a new world order poses a challenge also to the community of nations: that it show itself willing to pick up the burden of enforcing its norms of international conduct. Eventually, if Saddam Hussein does not comply peacefully with the U.N. resolutions -- if he does not, for example, withdraw completely and unconditionally from Kuwait -- the world community will have to rise to meet this challenge.
''If the United Nations cannot or will not stand up to Iraq when the time for waiting is over and Mr. Hussein still bestrides his illegitimate conquest, the United States and its allies will do the job on their own.
''The cause of world order is better served by vigilante justice than by no justice at all.
''But in the meanwhile, as we wait, it is the world community and not Iraq that is winning. Our forces on the ground -- and those of our allies -- have prevented further Iraqi aggression against its neighbors. Our enforcement on the seas oof the U.N. sanctions against Iraq has prevented Saddam Hussein from profiting from his theft of Kuwait. And as this economic stranglehold punishes Iraq, the world's oil producers have restored adequate oil supplies to the rest of the world economy.
''We can afford to wait. And if waiting doesn't work, all our other options remains open.''
Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.''