Saddam Hussein is confronting Americans with a fateful choice: Negotiation or war. And, if President Bush finds no alternative to war, Americans face another fateful choice: Does the United States go to war only if its allies agree or, if they won't agree, does the United States go to war on its own?

The current indication is that the enthusiasm of America's allies for war in the gulf is restrained. The Bush administration finds itself trapped in a paradox - the very "new world order" U.S. military intervention would be intended to promote constrains the United States from any military intervention at all. Which, then, should the United States choose? To stay in concert with allies or to go it alone?The oldest American tradition is freedom of national action. George Washington told his countrymen that "our true policy" was "to steer clear of permanent alliances." Thomas Jefferson warned against "entangling alliances." With the infant republic shielded from world power struggles by two great oceans, isolationism was the American way in foreign affairs in the century after 1815.

Then America's power grew, and with the steamship, the telegraph and the airplane, the planet began to shrink. By the 20th century, the United States had lost its geographical immunity to international conflict. When America could no longer escape the great world, Woodrow Wilson proposed a stirring new vision - U.S. participation in collective maintenance of international order, "not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace."

Congress rejected Wilson's League of Nations, and the republic relapsed into traditional unilateralism. Then the rise of German and Japanese aggression in the 1930s woke the republic from its isolationist slumbers. The Grand Alliance won the war. Wilson's League was reborn as the United Nations. The onset of the Cold War produced NATO. America no longer steered clear of entangling alliances. The old isolationism, it seemed, was extinct.

Or was it? Prewar isolationism found a new outlet in postwar unilateralism. Both were go-it-alone creeds. During the Cold War, the U.S. reigned as the superpower in the Western alliance. American allies, with notable exceptions like Gen. Charles de Gaulle, gratefully accepted U.S. protection and cheerfully followed the American lead.

Now the Cold War has ended. The U.S. is being out-produced by Germany and Japan and no longer reigns supreme. It is no longer capable of attaining great objectives all by itself. The United Nations, no longer paralyzed by the Cold War, at last appears in a position to redeem its promise and promote an organized common peace.

Circumstances thus argue for multilateral action.

When Saddam invaded Kuwait, Bush unfurled the standard of collective security, secured U.N. support for an economic embargo, assembled a coalition that included Arab states and enlisted the cooperation of the Soviet Union. In terms almost Wilsonian, he declared the U.S. objective to be the creation of a new world order.

Bush's hope today is that Saddam, faced by the economic embargo, the political coalition and 250,000 American troops in Saudi Arabia, will withdraw peacefully from Kuwait.

If that gamble fails, it is widely assumed that the next step would be war. But will the U.N. Security Council authorize an offensive war against Iraq?

It may be that our allies will accept war in the gulf so long as Americans do the fighting. But in that case, would Americans support a protracted war in which they take the casualties while other nations more directly threatened only cheer on from the sidelines?

And, if the allies think war a poor idea and the Security Council refuses to act, should the United States, as a few Americans are already urging, revert to unilateralism and go to war on its own?

The United States is not necessarily wiser than its allies. Bush may hear some good advice from allies if he is willing to listen. Can we be so sure that we know better than anyone else how to handle the Middle East?

Washington can hardly claim infallibility when it comes to that mysterious part of the world. Americans have had very little historic exposure to the region - a few missionaries in the 19th century, a few oilmen in the 20th, and that's about it.

The British and French have had far more operational experience in the Middle East and a far stronger scholarly tradition on Arab and Islamic questions. The State Department has no Middle Eastern experts comparable to its Soviet experts in years past, experts like George Kennan and Charles Bohlen, or the "old China hands" that John Foster Dulles drove from public service.

In the Middle East, Americans grope blindly in the dark, not knowing what to do. We simply don't know the territory - which is why we get so many things wrong. After building up Saddam, we now call him another Hitler. After fulminating against Hafez Assad of Syria, we now clasp him to our bosom.

Washington was not so smart about the Middle East in years past. Why are we so certain that Washington knows the best course today?

If we rush ahead against our allies' best judgment, they will distance themselves from the result. Indeed, we may find ourselves in a position where they will insist on being heard.

America is already hustling other countries to subsidize the military deployment. But superpowers do not pass begging bowls. Economic dependence reduces political independence.

"There can be no burden-sharing without power-sharing," an Italian commentator recently warned.

Other nations will not subsidize U.S. policy without having a say in the use of the subsidy. "No taxation without representation" is a sentiment that Americans, above all, should appreciate - it was the detonating principle of the American Revolution.

If the American objective is a new world order, should not the American government abandon any thoughts of unilateral action and remain dedicated to playing by the rules of collective security?

Can we really be sure that we understand the labyrinthine ways and shifting sands of the Middle East so much better than everybody else? Can we pay the costs of a go-it-alone war? Congress and the president had better ponder these questions before the republic plunges down the dark and bloody path.

1990, New Perspectives Quarterly

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