President Bush is a shrewd man. He knows a messy, inconclusive war could destroy his presidency.

But Saddam Hussein is wrong if he continues to underestimate Bush's resolve to order soldiers to die in a cause that months ago he decided was just.Bush, a World War II pilot shot down in the Pacific, saw his best friends die. A pragmatist - he did cave in on his pledge not to raise taxes - Bush also is adamant that some causes transcend the politics of the moment.

Having angrily seen appeasement of Nazi Germany, Bush is determined not to yield to this bully. If the gulf crisis makes Saddam stronger, Bush believes the United States will have to fight him in five years when he has nuclear weapons.

Never before has a war been planned in the public eye as much as has what Bush calls the coming "conflagration."

Even before the last diplomatic moves are played out, Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has laid out the Pentagon's strategy based on hearings and what the brass tells him privately.

Bush's top aides are on TV in the morning, at night and on weekends spelling out the latest nuances in the deadly game of wits with the Iraqi leader. Saddam watches on Cable News Network and responds in kind.

What an incredible day it was as a tense world stopped to watch TV to see a press conference with the American secretary of state as he emerged gloomily from a dead-end marathon of words with Tariq Aziz, the unyielding Iraqi foreign minister.

Then Aziz came out, having refused to carry a final letter from Bush to Saddam, and said calmly he would not be surprised if there is war. If war comes, he said in a chilling, matter-of-fact way, Iraq would attack Israel. It might be inept but enough of a blow to try to split the fragile 28-nation coalition, some of whose members would not back Israel against Iraq.

Then Bush went on the air, showing his frustration and lack of hope and all but throwing up his hands as he swore there is no back-door channel to peace.

The stock market plummeted; oil prices rose; the countdown to confrontation droned on.

Months and years from now, we will be racking our brains, trying to analyze whether Bush did the right thing and made the right moves in this delicate prelude.

Except for the release of secret information that could reveal deals and threats we don't know about now, it's hard to see how Bush could have done much differently, with a few exceptions.

Of course, it's hard to accept that U.S. policy was so muddled that Saddam was seen a man to do business with during the appallingly bloody Iran-Iraq war.

But once Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bush cleverly moved to weave together Arab states and Western nations to block an invasion of Saudi Arabia, put an economic choke-hold on Iraq's business dealings abroad and rally the United Nations.

Probably Bush should have sent Baker to Baghdad, even as late as this past weekend. Having argued that Saddam is surrounded by sycophants afraid to tell him bad news, Bush should have insisted that Baker deliver the message of world resolve eyeball to eyeball with Saddam.

The outcome likely would not have been different from the Baker-Aziz meeting. But that nagging kernel of doubt would be gone from many minds.

It's also a shame that Bush permitted the idea to take hold that his stand was over a few cents a gallon for the price of oil. Even though the sanctions are desperately hurting many Third World nations, Bush's moral outrage was never over that.

Bush is ready for war because the Iraqis obliterated Kuwait, brutalized its people, upset the balance of power and boasted they would get away with it.