PARIS. — Paris -- It seems increasingly likely that what George Bush has considered his great triumph, the defeat of Iraq in the gulf war, will end in a serious threat to his re-election. One of several such threats, but the most bitter to accept.
It is extremely hard now to see what can be done to make Saddam Hussein submit to the latest demands of Washington and the U.N. Security Council. Obviously Iraq can be attacked once more, but the ability to make him comply is doubtful.
He has repeatedly shown he can resist others' ''rational'' punishment/reward calculations. He has repeatedly turned measures meant to harm him to his advantage, his people absorbing the punishment instead.
So long as the Iraqi dictator defies the United Nations and the United States, Mr. Bush faces the question of what the gulf war accomplished, and even what it was all about in the first place.
There is a double danger to the president's re-election. He has to explain why Saddam Hussein still is in power in Baghdad, and also why Mr. Hussein's Iraq was so favored right up to its invasion of Kuwait. The favoritism seems to have extended to a calculated ignoring of Iraq's military misuse of U.S. agricultural credits.
From the beginning of the Iraq affair it appeared that part of the explanation is missing. Too much happened for too few visible motives. Why was there this complicity with Iraq before the war, when Iraq's war with Iran was won and Mr. Hussein certainly did not need exceptional foreign aid to remain the regional strongman?
And why was the Washington reaction so violent when Iraq invaded Kuwait? The explanation may eventually come out of the investigation now going on (against administration stonewalling) into the credits diversions.
However, it would not be altogether surprising if the answer turned out to be a personal one. Mr. Bush had made an investment in the policy of supporting Iraq as the ''responsible'' major power in the gulf. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had done the same thing with the shah of Iran a decade before, expecting him to play the same role. The shah merely failed; Saddam Hussein actively (but possibly unwittingly) betrayed George Bush.
The resemblance to the Panama affair is striking. There again the Bush administration acted with violence quite out of proportion to the provocation of Manuel Noriega, who in an earlier incarnation had been on the U.S. clandestine payroll. It is not usual for great nations to invade small countries to ''arrest'' those who rule them. There seemed a personal grievance in this, too.
What the U.S. did to Iraq in 1991 turned a disagreeable but potentially tolerable situation into what now is an intolerable one for Mr. Bush. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was scarcely the Hitlerian bid for world power Mr. Bush made it out to be, and might have been handled through international boycotts with no one except the Kuwaitis and Iraqis seriously inconvenienced.
The same oil would have continued to flow to the same markets (why else seize Kuwait's oil if not to sell it?). Kuwait's ruling Sabah family had few friends abroad -- certainly not among American voters.
To have intervened, but to have left Mr. Hussein in control, allowing separatist Shiites in the south and the Kurds to take the brunt of his fury, and now to find Mr. Hussein defying U.N. weapons inspectors while U.N. guards are murdered, leaves Mr. Bush a problem for which there is no evident answer.
Military power is made for gross application to physical tasks. To defeat Iraq's army or eject it from Kuwait are jobs an opposing army can do. Military power is not so useful in trying to change Mr. Hussein's way of thinking or his internal policies, or to cause him to halt an obviously popular program of resistance to U.N. interference inside his country.
The utility of military power is also diminished if both Baghdad and we know the gulf coalition is not going to be reconstituted for another invasion. In 1991 a bombing campaign of great intensity failed, by itself, to make Mr. Hussein withdraw from Kuwait.
It would be easy to bomb Baghdad again, killing still more ordinary Iraqis as we do. But if Mr. Hussein still defies the United Nations, what will Mr. Bush do then?
It is entirely possible that whatever he does, Saddam Hussein will still be in power in Baghdad when George Bush is gone from Washington. And that could be true even if Mr. Bush is reelected to the presidency in November. It teaches a lesson in foreign policy prudence -- and in last laughs.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.