Bill Clinton has decided he will not be the president to bring down Saddam Hussein or even to eliminate Iraq's potential for terror warfare.

Our announced goal is now more modest: to "reduce" or "diminish" Saddam's production of germs and poison gases, with each verb propped up by the adjective "seriously."He cannot, as head of the only willing world police power, do less; he has not the will to do more.

Using a Pentagon stage (marred by the smarmy sycophancy of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs), the president made a strong argument for the need to destroy Saddam before he destroys millions. Then he asked for support of his decision to wage halfway war, if necessary.

Should we give him that support? Unfortunately, while the president is forced to choose the least bad course, every politician and pundit is staking out a position from which later to say "I told you so."

Doves have it easiest. They can predict with certainty the pictures of Iraqi civilian casualties and American airmen in chains. If air strikes begin, the cries of the bereaved will echo in every living room, and the opponents of any U.S. military action short of repelling invasion will exacerbate our sense of guilt.

Hawks like me have it easy, too. We are making clear now that air strikes alone won't fully succeed in stripping Saddam of terror weaponry; not enough troops are in place for the ground war needed to replace dictatorship with a form of democracy in Iraq, as we did two generations ago in Germany and Japan.

Congressional "leaders" have it easiest of all. They are avoiding a resolution of war, thereby leaving themselves room to complain if Saddam does not collapse after a few air strikes, which he won't.

In this general ducking of responsibility, who has it hard? The president and his advisers, of course. They have neither the will to take on a fight to Saddam's finish nor the inclination to go down in history as appeasers who let a madman take the world's cities hostage.

Accordingly, they've chosen a muddling-through strategy to do as little as we must and kick the can of big decision down the road. If air power fails to reduce (seriously) the weapons potential, who will know during this administration? Clinton will display photographs, declare victory and reserve the right to "inspect by bombing" until Saddam accepts the status quo ante of playing cat and mouse with inspectors.

If Saddam is smart, he would follow the strategy now urged on him by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov: accept some fig leaf the U.N. secretary general brings, and renew a false promise to allow inspectors unfettered access; let U.S. forces stand down and Clinton bask in the sunshine of having made threat-based diplomacy successful; then, after an indecent interval, begin impeding inspections again, next time helped by Primakov's spies infiltrating U.N. teams.

Assume Saddam is not smart and prefers to offer up his populace to play the martyr. In that case, should hawks - especially those of us who have long taken seriously Saddam's germ-war threat - support the Clinton threat of spasms of halfway-war? Or should we join the pacifists and Arabists in opposition, complaining of no clear entrance mission or exit strategy?

I say press for a vote to legitimize the president's decision. Take the half-loaf he is forced to offer. By rallying behind Clinton now, we get into position to stiffen his spine if he goes wobbly or to push him upward when escalation is required.

Belay that told-you-so positioning. The president needs all the help he can get on this. Hawks can compartmentalize, too.