With public support slipping and even his staunchest supporters wondering if the U.S. military buildup has gone too far, President Bush clearly needs to do a better job of explaining his aims in the Persian Gulf.

But these circumstances don't necessarily amount to a compelling case for the suggestion this week that Congress be called back into special session to debate U.S. policy in the gulf.Not when the calling of such a session could easily give America's friends and foes alike the impression that panic is starting to set in among Washington's highest councils.

And not when the dissent that's bound to attend such a debate could easily be misread by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a sign of weakness on America's part.

So both the White House and congressional Democratic leaders did the sensible thing in promptly spurning a special session on the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

That decision, however, does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of repeated discussion and even a full-scale debate of this crisis after Congress comes back into regular session next January. In preparation for such an eventuality, some plain talk is in order.

For openers, it should be abundantly clear by now that the United States has three strategic objectives in the Persian Gulf:

1. To protect Saudi Arabia so that Saddam cannot impose a strangehold on the industrialized nations of the world by dominating nearly half of all known petroleum reserves and thus controlling oil prices.

2. To show that naked aggression will not be tolerated by securing the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and the restoration of the previous government there.

3. To make sure that Iraq does not become an even greater menace by keeping it from developing a full array of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons plus the missiles capable of delivering such weapons great distances.

Beyond these objectives, a few other points should be kept clearly in mind:

- By all means, Bush should continue to work through the United Nations and keep exerting economic and diplomatic pressure on Iraq.

- Since Saddam has shown repeated indifference to international law and to the suffering of his own people, it would be prudent to start laying the groundwork now in case armed conflict becomes unavoidable - in which case a formal declaration of war from Congress would strengthen Bush's hand. But at this point the appropriate groundwork can be laid by consultations between Bush and congressional leaders without a full-scale debate in Congress.

- Though Bush changed the complexion of the current crisis by sending more American troops to the Persian Gulf than are needed just to defend the Saudis, it is atrocious to accuse the American president of "resorting to war," as some have done.

Far from making war inevitable, the recent reinforcement of American forces in Saudi Arabia makes the allies' military pressure on Saddam more credible. Besides, a war already is under way in the Persian Gulf. Just ask the people of Kuwait, who are suffering terribly from continuing atrocities plus the systematic Iraqi looting of their land. For that matter, the taking of hostages is an act of war under international law - and Iraq has taken thousands of them, including Europeans and Asians as well as Americans.

- Finally, Bush still deserves plenty of credit for handling many aspects of the current crisis with admirable skill, particularly when it has come to mobilizing an international consensus for a joint defense of the Saudis and global condemnation of Iraq.

Now the time has come for Bush to put those skills to work with Congress and the American public. But surely it's a job that can be done with a few adroit addresses from the Oval Office without all the excesses and risks of a full-fledged debate, particularly one undertaken in haste.