President Bush will be condemned if he commits the United States to war in mid-January and vilified if he doesn't.

Bush is still playing the biggest crisis of his career day by day and hasn't decided whether to order offensive military force. But the circumstances favor it unless Saddam Hussein dies in the meantime.Bush has moral, economic and historic right on his side in this mess. But he has a lot to do before he orders young people to die - and no matter how mighty or effective U.S. air power is, Americans will die if there is war.

Bush risks absolute disaster if he doesn't spell out clearly, persuasively and unequivocably (for a change) why he thinks Americans must fight a difficult war in a desert across the ocean for people who care little about America and are governed autocratically by emirs.

The widely held misconception that this would be a war for a few cents a gallon of gasoline shows Bush has failed to spell out why he has ordered one of the largest mobilizations of military might since World War II.

The confusion and national embarrassment greeting his emotional slinging around of the analogy of Hitler to Saddam show that Bush doesn't yet have a handle on the statesmanship he must muster.

The growing comparison of Iraq with a pointless loss in Vietnam - inevitable but inaccurate - by frightened mothers and fathers is another indication that Bush has a long way to go to get American public opinion firmly behind him again.

First, Bush has to convey to Americans how dangerous Saddam is. He has told congressional leaders, warning the world must pay heed to Saddam now or the cost will be far higher later.

Bush has to convince Americans that Saddam's ruthlessness knows no boundaries. Most worrisome, this man who has used chemical weapons against his own citizens is on the brink of having nuclear weapons in his control within two to five years.

Bush must warn that Saddam is seeking long-range missiles that would give him means to rain terror into countries that are U.S. allies. Bush believes his quest is to defeat Saddam now or fight him later.

Bush must say that the U.S. economy is at stake, not just a few cents more for gasoline. Saddam now sits on 20 percent of the world's entire supply of oil, counting both Iraq and Kuwait's supplies. He would like to get 25 percent more if he ultimately could control Saudi oil. With almost half the world's vital oil reserves, Saddam would have more power than Adolf Hitler could have dreamed of having.

While Bush rightly refuses to let the hostages dictate U.S. policy, the U.S. president has responsibility for protection of Americans. Bush can rightly stoke American outrage as Saddam brutalizes hostages and refuses to let American diplomats in Kuwait have food or electricity or water.

Bush says there will be no partial solutions to confronting and stopping Saddam's evil. But Bush must stop getting cute as he did in doubling U.S. forces in the gulf and raising the specter of "offensive" warfare without consulting Congress or explaining to the American people why such actions are necessary.