Now that we've massed 150,000 troops on the Arabian peninsula, President Bush may have to start a war with Iraq to avoid getting bogged down in a stalemate.

A stalemate in this situation would be a disaster. It would turn our whole country into a hostage.In 1979 the Iranians took 63 Americans hostage at our embassy and fixated our attention for 444 days. Saddam Hussein already holds several hundred, and that's just the beginning.

If the present standoff goes on much longer, our 150,000 troops will become de facto hostages, asked to sit in the desert indefinitely with nothing to do, while their reason for being there dims.

Back home, the hostage mentality will seep into everything. Businesses trying to plan ahead won't know whether to plan for war or peace. Neither will families facing decisions and young people making career choices.

In Washington, our faraway impasse will impinge on every issue.

All of us will be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Meanwhile, the uncertainty will keep oil prices high, and the military cost will tick like a taxi meter gone crazy.

Bush is depending on the trade embargo to bring Hussein to his knees. Historically an embargo seldom works. In this case it will take too long. Iraq's porous borders with five other nations make it a smuggler's delight.

Oddly, sanctions are less effective against a poor country than a rich one. The poor are used to doing without. By contrast, the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s froze us in gas lines and inflicted instant inflation.

In the first days after Saddam invaded Kuwait, a negotiated settlement seemed a reasonable hope. Now it's remote. The United Nations failed, the Arab leaders failed, and both Bush and Saddam have since climbed out on a limb.

World support for our stand is wide but shallow. If the perception of a stalemate takes hold, our situation will deteriorate fast. Most of our allies will pack up and leave, taking their checkbooks with them.

The Arabs will tolerate us only as long as we look like winners. To them we are outsiders, infidels and allies of Israel, three good reasons to dislike us.

The Saudis reluctantly let us send troops to defend them, but only with the understanding that we would do the job and clear out.

In this affair we simply cannot play a waiting game.

However, we must acknowledge that going to war will have profound consequences. We will be the bad guys to virtually all Arabs, no matter what their rulers say. Therefore we should try for a quick knockout before that hostility gathers more momentum.

A quick victory is no certainty. Our troops aren't battle-tested, and the token forces supporting them may be more hinderance than help. A French official provided a preview when he said grandly, "France will act alone."

Victory won't be like successful surgery, removing the tumor and restoring the patient to instant health.

The war will unleash great turbulence in the restless Middle East - haves vs. have-nots, Shiite Muslims vs. Sunni Muslims, Kurds vs. Arabs and Israelis playing opportunists.

And once we defeat Iraq, an army of occupation will be needed for a long time to keep peace.

Our involvement in the Persian Gulf may be a story with no happy ending, one to wish we could have avoided. But we cannot let someone like Saddam grab the world's greatest source of oil. And we must not get bogged down in a stalemate.