President Bush's order to dispatch another 150,000 U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf, giving the forces there an "offensive option," is an ominous escalation toward war as Iraq continues to occupy Kuwait.

No one wants war, and the consequences could be devastating for all involved. But unless something gives, the steadily increasing pressure may one day result in open conflict.The United States rushed into the Persian Gulf with two goals: First, to protect Saudi Arabia against invasion by Iraq. Second, to force Iraq out of occupied Kuwait.

The first of those goals has been achieved. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be invaded. Unfortunately, more than three months after the Iraq invasion, the second goal is as remote as ever while Kuwait gradually is being destroyed as a nation.

Thousands of Americans, Europeans and other peoples have been seized as hostages and moved to strategic locations as human shields against attack. The seizure of the hostages is in itself an act of war.

Iraq's brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, declares that he will "never" retreat from occupied Kuwait. If he really means it, despite the pressures of world sanctions and a naval blockade, then war may ultimately be the only other viable option - outside of the United States simply packing up and going home. That would leave Kuwait under the heel of Iraq and other Persian Gulf kingdoms exposed to blackmail by Saddam's huge army.

Yet some are beginning to suggest just that. Looking at the human and financial cost of war, some observers are saying that the United States has no direct interest in Kuwait and wartime casualties would not be worth it.

Certainly, the price would be high. Even in defeat, Saddam could cause havoc, destroy oil fields, kill many Americans, disrupt the Middle East, and leave the Moslem world bitter at the sight of an Arab leader - no matter how despicable - being toppled by Americans.

Yet for the United States to pull out would mean that U.S. pledges of defense and support would be seen as worthless. Arab states could not trust American help. Control of the world's greatest oil reserves could be used as a weapon to batter the American economy. And Saddam would hold the club and collect the U.S. dollars.

Some argue that since the United States has not rushed to the aid of every defenseless small country grabbed by a ruthless neighbor - China swallowing up Tibet is used as an example - it should show the same indifference to Kuwait.

But it is not the same. Kuwait is a close American friend. The two countries have had close business, diplomatic and military ties for many years. Thousands of Americans were employed there. The United States aided Kuwait when Kuwaiti ships were threatened by Iran. And the need for oil is a basic strategic concern, despite those who try to dismiss it with a wave of the hand. Most Americans would find it shameful to walk away in those circumstances.

However, war is seldom a good alternative. The best bet is to be ready for the worst but to give sanctions more time to hurt Iraq. That is the crucial question of the whole confrontation - how long to let sanctions do their work?

The blockade must be having some effect. But suppose it is not enough? Suppose Iraq holds on and on and on? What then? Sometimes there are no good answers, only choices between bad ones.