PARIS - Saddam Hussein seems determined to reject any compromise that might save his people from war, while George Bush is talking in a way that could make that war worse than it might otherwise be.
There has been no lack of efforts to find a compromise. Even Saudi Arabia briefly floated a proposal others have promoted, that Iraq give back most of Kuwait and negotiate with the Arab League and Kuwait's rulers for the rest - a part of the Rumaila oil field, which the two countries share; strategic islands; improved access to the sea; financial settlements, etc.
A later one is Mikhail Gorbachev, whose envoy, Yevgeni Primakov, was in Baghdad again recently. Gorbachev suggests a new Arab diplomatic initiative. But President Saddam, while professedly willing to talk, is unwilling to yield.
His latest suggestion is that he give up all the hostages he still holds in exchange for a promise that the United States and the United Nations will not attack Iraq. That simply means, heads I win, tails you lose.
It is possible that he misunderstands the full implications of his intransigence. His horizons have always been Iraqi and Arab; Middle Eastern politics and negotiation are characteristically tortured and indirect.
In that respect, Bush is the worst man to go against him - bluff, unsubtle, moralizing, righteous, constantly comparing what is happening to the Second World War, when the West stood up to evil men and taught them a lesson about democracies provoked to wrath. That was his message again at Hickam Field in Hawaii the other day: ``Appeasement only leads to new aggressions.''
Actually, historically speaking: yes and no.
The repeated comparison of Saddam Hussein to Hitler is not a useful one. Hitler was driven by an uncompromising ideology that envisaged a European empire ruled by Aryans, ``cleansed'' of its supposedly inferior races.
Germany at the time was the world's second most powerful industrial nation, possessing world-leading technology. By the first year of the war, it had disposed of all the manufacturing capacity of Central Europe, plus that of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, together with access to the resources of the Balkans and Scandinavia.
Saddam is simply another Third World dictator, of a notable but by no means unusual brutality. He is no worse in that respect than our new ally, Hafez al-Assad of Syria, merely more daring.
His ideology is national aggrandizement. His Arab Renaissance, or Ba'ath, Party is committed to Arab unification, an ``Arab nation,'' but has never been able to do anything serious about it. The party itself is split into two camps today, of deadly mutual enmity. He preaches conquest of Israel, but so do most Arab politicians.
His country is backward industrially, with a gross domestic product of some $59 billion - well under half the industrial product of Belgium. If Belgium installed a brutal and ambitious dictator, would Washington dispatch a quarter of a million men to hold it in check?
Belgium at least has a sophisticated armaments industry. Iraq would like to create one, but its famous rockets and poison-gas plants all were bought abroad. Its planes, tanks, radar, missiles - all come from the obliging governments or merchants of the Soviet Union, the United States, France, West Germany, Brazil, China.
One presumes that if Saddam were somehow to survive this affair, we would not all resume our deliveries.
The Western powers for years have maintained a generally successful blockade of high-technology exports to the Warsaw Pact. One would think they could manage the same thing in the future with respect to Iraq. If that is so, the domino theories, which say that if we don't stop Saddam today, the Middle East and even Europe will be at his mercy tomorrow, rather lose their force.
The reason Bush's comparisons of Saddam Hussein with Hitler are dangerous is that they imply that the American goal is unconditional surrender. Is it? If we will accept nothing less than Saddam's head on a platter, a great many Iraqis, and Americans, assuredly will die before delivery is obtained.
Moreover, not all the others in our grand coalition are prepared to demand unconditional surrender at any price. If the United States finds the alliance dividing on this issue, things could become very difficult. The choice then might be war without regional allies, or a forced American climb-down, leaving Saddam strengthened.
The way to prevent that is for Washington to limit its public commitment to the all but universally agreed objective, unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
Washington should avoid public commitment to objectives the United States is unlikely, by itself, to be able to achieve at a cost the American public is prepared to accept.
(A recent Roper poll shows less than half the American public in favor of an attack on Iraq's warmaking capacity, or on the Iraqi president himself, if he yields Kuwait. On the other hand, 59 percent think the United States should not settle for a partial Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.)
Even war usually ends in compromise, as both the Korean and Vietnam Wars did - or were supposed to have done. A halt in the Persian Gulf crisis short of war is going to involve a compromise of some kind.
The notion of the simple solution - the violently cathartic one - is always seductive. It won't work here, for Saddam Hussein is not the cause of the Middle East's crisis, merely one of its results.
(Copyright, 1990, Los Angeles Times Syndicate)