The notion that President Bush is bent on war is wrong. We can at least give the president credit for believing that the best chance for avoiding conflict in the gulf is to convince Saddam Hussein that we are resolute in our determination to get him to withdraw from Kuwait and to abandon any ideas he may have about attacking Saudi Arabia.

To establish credibility for his position, the president believes he has to step up the pressure by increasing America's military presence. According to this reasoning, Saddam is not likely to back off if he sees the slightest indication that the United States is only playing a chess game.The president's strategy, however, is in danger of failure because of forces set in motion within his own camp. He wants to avert a war, but the same reasoning that is supposed to get Saddam to back down is convincing our own military to move forward. The need to avoid any intimation that we may be bluffing has produced a rush of provocative American talk and posturing that can only have the effect of convincing Saddam of the folly of waiting for us to launch a lightning attack. Strong arguments can be made for sending troops to the gulf to prevent an attack on Saudi Arabia. But using Saudi Arabia as a staging area for an offensive war - and openly advertising this fact - shatters Bush's purpose of preventing a conflict.

Saddam is not a paper tiger. He has modern military equipment, much of it from the United States and the Soviet Union - sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses, intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles, fighter planes, thousands of war-tested tanks. He also has terrorist capability; it would be foolish to discount the possibility that as soon as hostilities begin, bombs already planted from one end of the United States to the other would be ignited. Also, that thousands of Iraqi missiles would probably be let loose against Israel. The almost inevitable response by Israel would be to drop atomic bombs on Iraq. What the other Arab states would do at this point no one can foretell. All we know is that the entire Middle East - and perhaps a great deal more - could become rubble. When you play chess on a nuclear board, each piece becomes a war pushbutton.

We need not doubt the president's sincerity in believing that the threat of military force may represent our best chance for achieving peace in the gulf. Nor need we doubt that the combustibles of war are now being piled very high and that they can blow skyward with the slightest miscalculation.

What, therefore, do we do?

The most important thing we can do is to put an end to the incendiary rhetoric. The daily drumbeat, magnified in the media, calling for quick-trigger solutions, is neither in the national nor the human interest. We cannot on one hand go before the United Nations with lofty talk about the need for world order and then turn around and take unilateral military measures. The president's statement praising the United Nations for its unequivocal condemnation of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait loses resonance with talk about a first strike. Similarly, we cannot pose as champions of world law when we appoint ourselves sole judge about when and where to take military action.

No one can say for certain what will work. But we can at least be consistent. If Bush was right in asserting that U.N. action and world public opinion through the United Nations are the best hope for peace, we should expect him to stick to it. If we are sincere about making the United Nations a bulwark for stability in the Middle East - or anywhere else - the United Nations should be the main focus of our policy, along with a genuine willingness to listen to others.

(Norman Cousins, former editor of The Saturday Review, is on the faculty of the School of Medicine at UCLA.)