MOST OF WHAT President Bush and Secretary of State Baker have been saying in public has been designed for the ears of Saddam Hussein.
Those generals who say the war would last three days are probably following the psychological-warfare script, working on the mind of Mr. Hussein. Those generals who said the war would last long, with high casualties, and that they lacked resources probably represented the mainstream of Pentagon advice.
Members of Congress who talked about war powers and the Constitution were thinking about their own relation to the American people. They seemed indifferent to the effect of what they say on Saddam Hussein. But few congressmen want to impede the president when there is a chance that he may be right. So Congress was certain to pass a resolution designed to have it both ways and to signify little.
No one has figured how to send one set of messages to Baghdad and another to the American people, when both watch the same television from satellite. American citizens are entitled to candor from their servants; Mr. Hussein is entitled to have his mind played with; both cannot be done simultaneously. This is unsatisfactory, and the nation will have to live with it.
The looming deadline in the sand and the need of George Bush to keep Saddam Hussein guessing about U.S. intentions and timing make congressional debate inconsistent with the way armies behave. If the president were more open and honest with the nation, he would be less effective in his actions.
Opinion polls suggest that most Americans would support military action today in the Gulf. Most policy makers in government old enough to remember the Vietnam War don't believe that support would survive a week. So they are governed not by the polls, but by their gut certainty of what the polls would say in other circumstances.
There is no indifference to history here. President Bush and the British government (even under its young new prime minister) operate on the received wisdom about the diplomacy of 1938. They see Saddam Hussein's aggression as similar to Adolf Hitler's and believe Mr. Hussein will conquer until stopped, and that if he gets away with it others will emulate him.
A lot generals and congressmen look back to Vietnam, not farther. They don't think the American people would tolerate a long and indecisive war. They don't look back to the Korean war, when the American people did.
Saddam Hussein is trying to become the military leader of the Arab people. His model from German history, if he knows any, would be Otto von Bismarck, not Hitler. In the late 19th century, Bismarck used small wars to create a pan-German state, leaving out the largest German power, Austria, so that Prussia would dominate and its king become Germany's emperor. That achieved, Bismarck pursued a cautious diplomacy to avoid the war with other European powers that his successors blundered into in 1914.
Saddam Hussein is trying to create a pan-Arab country based on Iraq. It would leave Egypt out. If he did not absorb Saudi Arabia but did gain control of its oil policy, and revenue for his military machine, that might suffice.
He is not by training a military man or a diplomat or a student of history or a polemicist. He was a teen-age gunman and revolutionary party manipulator. He did not write a book of his world view, as Hitler did. He did not, like Stalin, study for the priesthood. Nor did he, like Lenin, write polemical journalism. He has no intellectual paper trail.
His ambitions sailed beyond Iraq's ability to pay and his country is in hock and a terrible credit risk despite its oil. The world powers would be likely to use the inevitable loan requests as leverage to impose on him the strategic disarmament that most of his neighbors seek.
Saddam Hussein's problem would be staying in power through a diminution of Iraqi national grandeur. There is no dissent in Baghdad now, when dissenters are executed and the entire ruling circle comes from the small town of Tikrit on the Tigris River.
What would likely happen at some sign of weakness would be a violent coup against the Tikritis from some part of the military or civilian society not presently identified. Saddam Hussein is likely to be thinking about that always.
His way out of this would be to give in to economic sanctions on international issues while preserving his monopoly of power within Iraq. No one can tell him how to manage that. Few would if they could.