President Bush's dramatic negotiating overture to Saddam Hussein was intended, no doubt, to disarm Congress. Congress, following Sam Nunn, was in the process of disarming Bush by scuttling his military option until well into the presidential year 1992.

The Bush maneuver calmed Congress for a full 72 hours - until the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened its gulf hearings with a parade of anti-war witnesses, a display of anti-war speeches by committee Democrats and a pummeling of Secretary of State James Baker for not giving peace (pardon me: sanctions) a chance.Baker, who is supposed to impress Saddam with American resolve next month in Baghdad, limped away wounded. Saddam, who watches a lot of CNN, was apparently satisfied. He praised the U.S. Congress, which, he surmised, "feels deeply its responsibility" for "not rushing into war" (quotes courtesy of the Iraqi News Agency).

Bush's negotiation maneuver did not just misfire domestically. It will backfire internationally. Bush may honestly believe that he is entering not into negotiations but simply "discussions," that he is sending Baker simply to deliver Saddam a message.

But a president with Bush's long experience in foreign affairs must know that once a negotiation begins, it acquires a dynamic of its own.

Saddam doesn't need much to come out a victor. He need only come out intact and in power with something to show, some reward for his aggression. He has many cards to play for his little rewards.

He played his first card swiftly and brilliantly: He agreed Thursday to free the hostages. That will bring him favorable PR, weeks of media distraction (the story is hostage joy rather than Kuwaiti agony), and an even more pliable U.S. negotiating partner.

The hostage release, judged Rep. Lee Hamilton, father of the mission-to-Baghdad idea, will create a "positive atmosphere" and "accelerate" U.S.-Iraqi negotiations.

Other cards? At some point, Saddam might offer pieces of (what is left of) Kuwait. A British report had Saddam offering to leave most of Kuwait in return for the Rumaila oil field and a "lease" on Kuwait's Bubiyan island. (How would you like to be Saddam's landlord when the lease runs out?)

The report, although denied, is plausible. Saddam covets the oil, and control of the island that commands Kuwait City would give him effective military control of the country. If he allows the royal family to return, they return as his clients.

Moreover, this kind of offer completely diffuses the military threat. In 1939, no one was prepared to die for Danzig. Anyone prepared to die for Bubiyan?

Saddam has Palestinian cards to play. And even a democracy card. What if he insists - and makes peace hinge on his demand for - "free elections" for the benighted feudalism of Kuwait?

Having depopulated Kuwait and colonized it with Iraqis and Palestinians, Saddam could not lose such an election. (Saddam is the first political thug to have taken seriously Bertolt Brecht's mordant suggestion that when the people lose trust in the government, the solution is not to change the government but for government to change the people.)

Bush could explain to Americans that such "elections" are a ruse for Saddam's de facto annexation of Kuwait. Still, could Bush mobilize America to fight in order to prevent "democracy" from coming to Kuwait?

Baker may intend his trip for delivery of an ultimatum. But Saddam has already shown his considerable negotiating skills in preliminary jockeying over the shape of the table. The Arabs who have gone out on a limb with the United States are quite nervous that Bush might cut a deal with Saddam behind their backs. Bush therefore proposed that the Washington talks include America's allies.

Saddam countered by saying that, in that case, he would have Baker in Baghdad meet not just with him but with his allies, too, namely Yasser Arafat. The United States quickly agreed to one-on-one in both venues.

Outflanked from the start, America's Arab allies are rightly afraid that Baker might return from Baghdad clutching a piece of paper and promising peace for a time. Watch for them to begin their own back-channel negotiations with Baghdad.

Yesterday only has-beens and outcasts like Ramsey Clark and Kurt Waldheim went to Baghdad. Today France and the European Community are offering high-level meetings with Iraq now that the United States has broken the taboo. The bazaar is open.

Saddam has already won at another level, too, a level that counts for much in the Arab world: prestige. If Bush wanted to negotiate, why not simply in Washington with Foreign Minister Aziz?

Sending Baker to Baghdad shows that one can imprison a thousand Americans for four months and be treated not as an outlaw but as an equal.

Before Nov. 30, the president was bent on war. Congress was bent on waiting. Then the president held out a tantalizing third option: a deal. He may say he does not want one. But Congress will seize on the idea.

And Saddam will certainly labor to produce one. Because if he does, he wins. Any concession, anything short of unconditional withdrawal, is victory for him. And like Hitler after the Rhineland, if he wins, he'll be back.