Machiavellis don't do well in democracies.

With Cable News Network boasting that Saddam Hussein gets his information about U.S. intentions from its up-to-the-minute broadcasts, President Bush has been "sending mixed signals" to confuse him.Bush has become a blur, figuratively and literally, as he tries to badger Saddam into turning tail. If Bush could get frequent flyer points, he could go globe girdling for free for a year.

More worrisome, most Americans are not sure what Bush's "game plan" is. (The closer war comes, the more sports cliches echo in the corridors of power.)

Bush said he would rely on economic sanctions to force Saddam out of Kuwait but immediately began preparing for war.

Then, after training 230,000 American soldiers to withstand the rigors of the desert, Bush abruptly said he would send possibly 200,000 more troops, who should be in place by the end of the January.

First, the administration said the troops there since Aug. 2 would be rotated home with the new people taking their place. But that was a signal to Saddam that war was not imminent since new troops would not be ready for weeks.

So the rotation policy was dropped. But that caused an uproar at home that, obviously, the country was going to war without a proper vote by Congress.

So now the rotation policy is "under review."

Bush said he did not want to destroy Saddam but sought to force him to leave Kuwait. But now Bush warns the world can't leave Saddam poised on the brink of having nuclear weapons when Saddam has always used every weapons he's possessed.

Bush is trying to prepare the world for obliterating Saddam and his war machine but without actually proving Iraq is close to having nuclear weapons. But such an attack would outrage the rest of the Arab world and instead of ensuring the stability Bush seeks in the Persian Gulf could cause bloody upheaval for years.

Bush said a special session of Congress to debate a resolution for war was not needed, especially since many in Congress don't want war. But now he thinks it might be better to have Congress vote first before any shots are fired.

Bush says Saddam is worse than Adolf Hitler, although just a few months ago Bush's policy was to help Saddam - certainly much of Saddam's military hardware can be attributed to Washington's belief he was better than the evil Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.

Bush says this is not just a conflict over oil and the economic well-being of the West but also a moral crusade - and he's right. But he lets himself be harangued for three hours by Syria's President Hafez al-Assad, whom the United States has long despised as a prodder of terrorists.

Bush's problem is that he is trying to prepare a surprise attack against an enemy that has the benefit of the entire world psychoanalyzing every move Bush makes. At the same time Bush's best and brightest advisers aren't sure how to read Saddam.

Bush's problem is exacerbated by a Congress which remembers that the nation slipped far too easily into a ruinous war in Vietnam but isn't sure this time whether it wants to take a stand or waffle. With witness after witness in congressional hearings urging caution in the Persian Gulf, what happens to the pressure Bush is trying to put on Saddam to withdraw peacefully from Kuwait?

On the other hand, Bush does not want to risk lambasting Congress for meddling or undermining his policy. Even worse, he doesn't want to belittle the work of democratically elected leaders.

Bush's dilemma is painful, especially to a man who wants everybody to like and respect him. Above all, he needs the nation's backing if he decides to send its sons and daughters to war.

Why, he must wonder wearily, somewhere in the sky in Air Force One, does there have to be a major knock-down-dragged-out democratic-style debate over this?