Behind all the maneuver and the bluff, behind the threats and counter-threats, there is an inexorable logic at work in the Persian Gulf. It is the logic of war.

Barring a miracle - say, Saddam's assassination followed by an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait - this slow-motion windup can have only one outcome.Both Bush and Saddam have boxed themselves in. Bush insists on unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. Saddam, having given up his gains in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, cannot leave Kuwait empty-handed. If he does, he falls. And if he falls, he dies. In Iraq, presidential transitions are carried out by a gun.

The minimal conditions of the two antagonists are wholly incompatible.

After Bush dramatically restated his goals to a joint session of Congress, it is not just his presidency but his place in history that hangs in the balance. The president who declared to the world that "we will not let this aggression stand" will not be remembered as the Education President. Bush has bound up his fate with Kuwait's.

It is possible, of course, that in the end Bush will flinch and agree to what is euphemistically called an "Arab solution." Saddam gets concessions - a couple of Kuwaiti islands, oil fields, a few billion dollars in payoff from the Gulf Arabs - in return for withdrawal.

The administration might call the concessions a mere fig leaf and try to sell this peace-for-our-time solution as an American victory. The world would see it for what it is: a victory for Saddam and a guarantee of Iraqi hegemony over the Arabian peninsula.

Such a solution would be a major American defeat, fatally compromising both our standing and our friends in the Arab world, principally Egypt's Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd who crossed Saddam and sided with us. George Bush knows this. Which is why I cannot imagine he will accept such an outcome.

But if Bush doesn't back down, this can only end in war.

For three reasons. First, the embargo will not work. It marginally weakens Iraq and usefully delays the inevitable, but it will not do the trick.

The early news leaks of how the sanctions are beginning to bite are in the same class as the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel stories in Vietnam. A reporter could always find (or be led to) a village with a couple of peasants prepared to pledge hearts and minds to Saigon. Today, there will always be a Baghdad store with empty shelves ready for filming.

These are illusions. It is impossible to imagine sanctions being decisive. The first to die will be our friends, the Kuwaitis. The Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, speaking to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Sept. 14, said that his people would begin to starve within two to four weeks.

As the Kuwaitis die, so will the foreigners among them. Next to die will be the women and children of Iraq. Because we will not let that happen, the siege cannot work. Historically, the whole point of sieges is to starve the enemy into submission.

Do we expect Iraq to surrender because we have cut off its access to nylon and Nissans? Moreover, Mesopotamia is not known as the Fertile Crescent for nothing. It can sustain a subsistence economy far longer than America and the world can sustain an embargo.

Second, Saddam's bet that holding hostages will deter an American attack is a losing one. Saddam's mistake was taking too many hostages. The paradox is that their utility declines as their numbers increase.

When you take three or four, as in Lebanon, their plight can be personalized. When you take thousands, it is much harder to emotionally engage the American public. In Lebanon, we know the faces of the hostages. In Iraq, we know only the number.

Finally, there is the American buildup, massive and continuing. It is now beyond what is needed to defend against an attack on Saudi Arabia, an unlikely prospect in any case. We are building up to what? We are building up to war.

If that is so, then Bush, who has thus far handled the crisis brilliantly, has failed in one crucial respect: preparing his people for the inevitable. His address to Congress was clear and stirring. He explained why we have to prevail and he promised that we would.

But he did not have the courage to tell the American people that this could well mean war. And he did not begin to prepare them for the suffering and sacrifices to come.

His rhetoric hearkens, correctly, back to Churchillian rejection of appeasement. But Churchill went on to promise blood, sweat and tears. Bush promises a cut in the capital-gains tax.

Bush might still be hoping that sanctions or a miracle will intervene and prevent war. But he must not count on either. We are on the road to war. If he expects the American people to support him when the time comes, he had better begin preparing the country now.