WASHINGTON — IN the early afternoon of Wednesday, President Bush issued the order that could transform his presidency - as well as the politics of the Middle East and beyond. He is not generally a man to agonize over decisions. He is more prone to conversation than contemplation. Yet he worked for two to three weeks on the short speech he gave to the nation Wednesday night, going through four drafts himself.
Mr. Bush knew his decision, and the gravity of it, on Tuesday. He arrived at the Oval Office at the usual time, around 7:15, but went for a solitary walk around the White House grounds. He called an Episcopal bishop and the Senate chaplain and asked them to pray for the country.
Tuesday afternoon, sitting in front of the Oval Office fireplace, he signed a National Security Directive for the launching of a massive strike on Iraqi forces. Then he called Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney to execute the directive.
The directive was undated, however. Not until Wednesday, after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had rebuffed still another set of diplomatic overtures and even the ever-mediating French were calling for war, did the president fill in the date.
Wednesday morning, in still another sign of the president's unusually sober frame of mind, he called his old friend, evangelist Billy Graham, to spend the night at the White House. Dr. Graham, said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, ``is someone [Bush] has frequently turned to for spiritual advice.''
The timing of the attack came as no true surprise, except apparently in Baghdad. In Washington press rooms, reporters had been betting for days on an air strike beginning late Wednesday afternoon or evening. Bush's senior military advisers advised the time, since it offered the first early morning darkness after the UN deadline had passed.
At the White House, the beginning of the Gulf war was strikingly permeated by television, especially the global Cable News Network.
As the first coalition planes arrived over Baghdad, Bush was sitting in his shirtsleeves with his chief of staff John Sununu, Vice President Dan Quayle, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. They were watching CNN.
As CNN's reporters in Baghdad began reporting antiaircraft fire and bomb explosions, the president said, ``Right on schedule. Marlin, you'd better let them know.'' Mr. Fitzwater then headed out to the waiting press.
The White House lawn was scattered with bright pods of light as television reporters did standup reports under oversized umbrellas in the dark winter drizzle. The press room was packed with sound and camera technicians and network reporters standing on chairs to face their cameras over the scurrying crowd.
That both Saddam and Bush have been avid CNN watchers, and could be getting the same reports simultaneously, lent an eery sense to the network's live coverage of the air assault on Baghdad. Indeed, when asked about the progress of the assault in a briefing Wednesday night, Mr. Cheney acknowledged his best information was from CNN.
Bush has relied on television all along. When challenged a few days ago on whether Bush has had sufficient advice from outside experts on Persian Gulf politics, a senior adviser answered with a television defense: ``The president is an avid TV watcher, and I can't think of a Middle East expert that hasn't been interminably on television. ... He manages to see them all.''
The success of the Bush presidency and the shape of Middle Eastern politics now rests largely on the proficiency of Operation Desert Storm. Bush has put his ideals and tendencies of style to an unforgiving test. The political outcome - both in the Middle East and here in the US - will depend on how fast and how sparing of human agony is the freeing of Kuwait.
He launched the war with the support of a country with many doubts about it. He continues to deny that permission from Congress is required to wage this war, yet he complied with the congressional resolutions of last weekend by notifying the leadership Wednesday evening of his decision to attack, vouchsafing that military force was only being plied as a last resort.
``I'm not one of those who thinks you can project ahead two years from one event,'' says presidential scholar Thomas Cronin. A failure in the Gulf does not necessarily make him a one-term president.
But for a president whose strongest interests, most proven abilities, and highest public support lie in his handling of foreign affairs, the outcome will cast an indelible stamp on his reign. He has talked to public opinion experts during the long buildup to war, and he knows that modern history shows American support for a war effort dropping as time wears on and casualties grow.
He is also aware that a success in the Gulf not only enhances the ``new world order'' he seeks, but will bring him tremendous public support at home. Quick action a year ago in Panama, a relatively tiny business, took his approval ratings to 80 percent.