IT IS LIKE a film in slow motion. Any time after Jan. 15 there may be a war, with terrible human and political consequences. We move toward that deadline, trancelike, as if there were no way out.
President Bush would plainly prefer not to use military force. He has threatened war on Iraq in order to avoid it -- to persuade Saddam Hussein that he must withdraw from Kuwait.
But the strategy has put Bush in a box, and with him the international coalition that he rallied to resist Iraq's aggression.
If the Jan. 15 deadline passes without a resolution of the crisis, and Bush does not then soon use force, some will call him "weak."
That is the result, no doubt unintended, of the date set by the U.N. Security Council at his behest. It is a deadline not only for Saddam Hussein but for George Bush, pushing him and the world toward war.
But it cannot be too late for Bush and the rest of us to think clearly about the consequences of war. It never can be.
Think of the effect a war of the enormous forces arrayed in the Persian Gulf would have on the hope that Bush has raised in the crisis.
That is the hope of what he calls "a new world order," of collective security against international aggression.
A war would be justified as necessary to establish the principle of collective security, but it could have the opposite result. So Prof. Stanley Hoffmann warns in a compelling article in the latest New York Review of Books.
An all-out war, with its likely devastation of the Middle East, would turn many members of the present anti-Iraq coalition against the idea of collective security, Hoffmann argues.
And it would affect American opinion the same way.
"Collective security will be the casualty, not the winner," he writes, "if we lose a sense of proportion, if we launch a war that will divide the coalition and the public far more than a protracted reliance on sanctions. . . . Only a miraculously successful war -- a swift victory through a limited resort to force -- would dispel all these dangers. Miracles rarely happen. . . .
"Any other kind of war risks pushing states away from collective security and -- with predominantly American losses on the U.N. side -- almost ensures that the U.S. will not again provide the leadership . . . required to make it work."
The alternative to marching on toward war is diplomacy. And again, it cannot be too late for that course.
Bush's idea of sending Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad for talks is stymied, now, by Saddam's proposal of a Jan. 12 date while Bush insists on nothing later than Jan. 3.
But when he originally suggested the talks, on Nov. 30, Bush said they could be held "at a mutually convenient date between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15."
Nor is diplomacy excluded by the apparently irreconcilable positions of the parties today.
There is as much room for maneuver here as there was in the Cuban missile crisis and other grave moments of international tension.
For example, Bush has rightly rejected Saddam's attempt to link the Gulf crisis to the Palestinian issue, as if he had invaded Kuwait to help the Palestinians.
But Bush could on his own do what he wants to do anyway: propose a new initiative for Arab-Israeli peace.
Or another example: Bush says that any partial Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait would be inadequate. It would be.
But Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who has been very supportive of the Bush policy, is surely right when he says that Americans would then be unlikely to "believe that war was still necessary."
If Saddam refused to leave, say, the disputed islands and oil field, sanctions on his oil exports would simply continue.
The Jan. 15 deadline really raises a question about George Bush: Does he have the inner strength to be patient?
Will he understand, and be able to convey, that his commitment to undo Iraq's aggression does not require immediate war?
Bush told Time magazine in a year-end interview:
"I know the promise of a new world order if it is done right. I know the devastating effect on the world if it is done wrong." Yes. But the "wrong" that would have a devastating effect is premature war.
"Giving a free rein to aggression would turn the world into a jungle," Hoffmann writes.
"But so would the equation of collective security with the kind of all-out war that rules out diplomacy."