Six months of debate have confused rather than clarified the reasons the United States has sent more than 400,000 troops to the Persian Gulf. Many wonder why our young men and women are risking their lives so far from home. Yet our cause can be summed up in five words: moral principle and vital interests.

Saddam Hussein's naked conquest and pillaging of Kuwait thrust at the heart of our ideals of freedom and human rights. Saddam has governed through terror, torture and summary execution.Iraq's aggression will not cease at the Saudi border. After invading Iran in 1981 and Kuwait in 1990, as well as threatening Saudi Arabia, other gulf states and Israel, who can argue that Saddam will not strike again?

Only the United States has the power to stop Saddam, and there is no time to lose. Today, we stand with a united world against an isolated Iraq. If we wait a year or two, we will give Iraq more time to build up the greatest fortified works - complete with mine fields, fire ditches, dug-in armor and planned "killing zones" - since the Maginot Line.

The possibility remains that Saddam could add nuclear weapons to his arsenal. The Iraqi nuclear weapons program is five to 10 years away from success. But if he diverts enriched uranium from his nuclear power plant, Saddam could build a crude device in less than a year.

If we act now, we can limit our losses. If we choose to wait, we risk buying time for sanctions to work at the price of thousands - and perhaps million - of lives.

Iraq has recruited the support for the world's most vicious terrorists, including those behind the Pan Am 103 bombing, the Rome airport massacre and the Achille Lauro hijacking. Safe in their Baghdad haven, they are actively plotting a worldwide terror campaign, targeting U.S. installations not only in the Middle East and Europe but also here at home. A sign of weakness in the gulf crisis will be seen as a green light for terrorism.

In addition, if Saddam prevails, the United States would be finished as a major power in the Middle East. By facing down the United States, Saddam would become the hero of the Arab man in the street.

Revolutionary forces would topple moderate governments in the pivotal countries of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Saddam's brand of radical anti-Americanism would soon dominate every Arab country from Morocco through Oman. That development would directly threaten the survival of Israel. We must forestall such a danger because of our moral commitment to the Jewish people.

Finally, we would have to cope with extortionist oil prices if Saddam prevails. Oil is the lifeblood of our industrial economy, and we cannot afford to have Saddam at our jugular.

Iraqi domination of the gulf would lead to oil prices that would make this fall's $1.50 gallon of gas but a fond memory. Saddam could control, by conquest or intimidation, over two-thirds of the free world's oil reserves. In oil exports, he would corner the market. He would have the power to plunge the industrialized world into an economic depression at the drop of a hat.

Our policy in the Persian Gulf must have five objectives: complete withdrawal from Kuwait, the termination of Iraq's programs for developing weapons of mass destruction, the reduction of Iraq's massive conventional armed forces, the removal of Saddam from power, and the neutralization of an Iraq-led radical Arab threat to Israel.

Despite the imperative need for U.S. action, opponents of President Bush - some for partisan political reasons - have put up a smoke screen of four objections:

Only the oil companies benefit. All Americans would benefit from a more stable Middle East, free access to Persian oil at market prices, and deterring potential aggressors around the world. Ironically, if motivated by profit alone - which is not the case - oil executives would delight in a victory by Saddam, who would then keep prices at stratospheric levels.

Sanctions need more time. After six months, sanctions have had their day in court. Moreover, as time passes, smugglers in Turkey, Iran and Syria are turning the embargo into a sieve. While sanctions might impoverish Iraq, breaking Saddam's will to keep Kuwait is another matter. A country that lost about one million men in a decade of war with Iran will not cave in from higher consumer prices.

Diplomatic efforts have not been exhausted. Only Saddam's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait will achieve our objectives in the Persian Gulf. Rewarding aggressors by making concessions creates incentives for future aggression. After dozens of entreaties by the U.N., allied and neutral powers, and free-lance statesmen, Saddam has offered no real hope of a just political settlement.

Allies are shirking the burden. To the contrary, never before has the burden in a crisis been shared so broadly. Twenty-eight countries have sent a total of 225,000 troops to take up positions in the region, and our Persian Gulf and Western allies have contributed billions of collars to support the multinational effort.

These arguments amount to blatant obstructionism designed to make life difficult for President Bush rather than Saddam. If both Syria and Israel can see the threat posed by Iraq, why cannot Democrats in Congress?

If we fail to measure up to the moment, we will betray our ideals and undercut our interests.