President Bush, in a recent interview, said he wouldn't "give one single inch to placate the aggressor, the dictator, the rapist of Kuwait."

The world's determination to push Saddam Hussein and Iraq out of Kuwait is a "clear case of good vs. evil," said Bush. For the governments of the world to yield even slightly to Saddam would mean it has forgone "a chance for lasting peace and for stability and security in the gulf and a new world order.""It's that big," said the president. "It's that important. Nothing like this since World War II. Nothing of this moral importance since World War II."

Hyperbole? Perhaps.

There still could be doubt in Saddam's mind that Bush means it. But the idea that Bush is somehow bluffing looks - at least through Western eyes - increasingly absurd. If this is a poker table, Bush has left himself no foreseeable way to fold the cards, get up and leave. While the world worries about how Saddam can withdraw without losing face, the avenues of retreat, graceful or otherwise, have also disappeared for Bush.

One can still imagine Saddam ordering his army out of Kuwait and saying he is doing so as a humanitarian gesture or some kind of sacrifice to rid Islam of the infidel. After all, he took Western hostages, turned them into human shields, then released them without any visible signs of embarrassment. Saddam can turn tail and say whatever he wants and probably get away with it in his country.

But for Bush to abandon Kuwait - or even to negotiate some compromise at this point - would grievously damage his presidency and end his dream of U.S. leadership of the post-cold war order.

The only wiggle room Bush has left himself is on the timing of a military offensive. The Jan. 15 United Nations deadline for Iraqi withdrawal may not mean an allied invasion will begin that day. And Bush has not entirely given up the notion that an economic embargo, alone, will force Saddam out. But the best Iraq will get is a little time.

Bush has gone too far and has raised the stakes too high to back out now. Critics in Congress say Bush has become a prisoner of his own rhetoric. His comparison of Saddam to Hitler, Kuwait to Czechoslovakia, the gulf crisis to World War II has left no exit except Iraqi capitulation to the United Nations' resolutions.

That may be important for Saddam to understand. He may well not.

As a regional political leader who has never traveled outside the Middle East and who seldom leaves his own country, Saddam well could be confused about what is propaganda and what is reality on the world stage.

His own histrionics, and the Arab manner of almost comically exaggerated threats, indicate he may not fully appreciate the gravity of the political situation and may mistake Bush's words as customary threat. His reaction to the congressional debate over Persian Gulf policy here indicates he may not appreciate how very much Bush can do to him as commander-in-chief.

As a military man, Saddam ought to know his air force is outclassed, and the only way he can save his army is to withdraw it. But Bush is not sure he even appreciates that.

"Saddam Hussein did not fight against Iran without air cover. He had air cover. Without trying to sound bellicose, he would not have air cover of any kind should there be some conflagration. None, none at all.

"It's my view that, one, he doesn't know what he's up against, and two, he doesn't believe the willpower of the United States or the United Kingdom or France or Egypt or the Saudi Arabians to use that power against him," Bush said.

The White House thinks contacts Iraq is now making with European leaders - providing they don't dwindle into discussion of a compromise - may be important in conveying to Saddam that the West cannot retreat.

The tragedy may be that Saddam not only doesn't understand what that means for him but thinks it isn't his problem.