The off-again, on-again attitude of the Soviet Union on using force to liberate Kuwait is a problem for the Bush administration. Moscow's support is vital, and November is drawing to a close.

The significance of the calendar is that the United States is president of the United Nations Security Council this month. In December it will be Yemen's turn, and the Arab nation has opposed most of the resolutions aimed at Iraq since the August invasion.Running the Security Council gives the Bush administration a tactical advantage. Once Yemen is in the chair it would be that much tougher to win adoption of a resolution to use force as a last resort to liberate Kuwait.

"There are a lot of ways to get thoroughly wrapped around the axle of the United Nations," a senior State Department official said recently about the intricacies of the world organization. "There are a whole host of other things that can come up. So it's important to try and do it during the period of our presidency of the council."

Which explains why Secretary of State James A. Baker III decided to go to Yemen this week.

But Yemen's president, Gen. Ali Abdullah Saleh, rebuffed Baker's efforts Thursday to win his country's support for a resolution authorizing the use of force. Saleh criticized the military buildup in the region and called for an Arab solution to the crisis.

"We knew it was going to be a very tough nut," said a State Department official who demanded anonymity.

The need for Soviet support has been the case from the outset.

Bush administration policymakers consider themselves fortunate that the Cold War thawed before Iraqi President Saddam Hussein decided to annex his smaller, oil-rich neighbor.

The Soviets are more inclined than the United States to stress seeking a peaceful resolution of the Persian Gulf crisis. And yet, they have gone along with the Bush administration on all resolutions so far.

Even at the Paris summit, when President Bush failed to get Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's concurrence on using force, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was able to report the two leaders had "reaffirmed their unity and commitment" to have Iraq withdraw from Kuwait.

Now the question is whether the Bush administration's determination to threaten Saddam with the prospect of an attack can be meshed with the Soviets' desire to give diplomacy more time to work.

And the Soviets are not alone in that view. Several nations in the makeshift alliance against Iraq agree with Moscow, and so do many members of Congress.

Whether Bush would actually pull the trigger and go to war over Kuwait is anyone's guess at this point. But there is no question that disagreement within the alliance on the issue would strengthen Saddam's hand.

The Soviets, of course, have the power to block a resolution with a veto. While no one expects such a situation to arise, the Bush administration wants to be sure of more than cautious support from Moscow on using force.

And Soviet leaders have been cautious and ambiguous.

Asked in Paris Monday if he thought "force or patience" would resolve the crisis, Gorbachev ducked. "Well, I think we all need patience," he said. "But that does not mean we are going to weaken, that we are going to retreat. No, we are going forward in a very resolute way."

Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze was equally cautious - and imprecise - when he was asked in Moscow earlier in the month if Baker had convinced him that force might be necessary as a last resort.

"Whether or not the use of force could be ruled out - probably this could not be ruled out - and a situation may emerge which effectively would require such a move," Shevardnadze said.

Only a few hours earlier, the Soviet foreign minister called the use of force "undesirable."

So with the clock ticking, and Saddam watching, the Bush administration hopes to cobble together a resolution Moscow can support - and get it passed before the end of November.