OFFICIAL Washington returns today from August recess to unofficial talk of a possible United States military offensive in the Persian Gulf. The posture of US forces in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf remains defensive, and the official policy is still to squeeze the Iraqis out of Kuwait with an economic embargo.
The embargo so far has virtually worldwide support. And the Iraqis are showing some discomfort. They have reportedly offered the Philippines oil in trade for sugar and Turkey oil at bargain rates to break the embargo. Hostages returning from Iraq report seeing bread lines, while the Iraqi government acknowledges that food is being rationed.
But the view is rising that time may be on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's side, because he can watch support for the embargo and military buildup erode in the US and internationally while he appears unmoved by suffering at home.
The US official who has been most hawkish is Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana. His view is that Iraq will continue to terrorize the region unless Saddam is ousted for power and Iraqi chemical and nuclear-war-making facilities are crippled.
The assumption is that Saddam would never negotiate himself out of power.
Unless the Iraqis take the unlikely step of removing Saddam and dismantling the chemical and nuclear facilities themselves, says a Lugar aide, ``that leaves us the military option.'' Senator Lugar and other members of Congress discussed this view with Bush over dinner Wednesday at the White House.
``There is still definitely the option of peace,'' says Tony Cordesman, an aide to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and an expert on military strategy. ``It's still the best option. It may be getting less probable.''
Few are ready to give up on diplomacy. President Bush endorsed the mission of United Nations Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, who met repeatedly and futilely over the weekend with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Amman, Jordan.
But the US endorsement carried little hope. ``We're not too sanguine,'' said a US official on Friday, echoing Mr. Bush.
Meanwhile, Bush is preparing for a surprise summit with Mikhail Gorbachev to be held on Sunday in Helsinki. The Gulf crisis is expected to top the agenda.
King Hussein of Jordan has been traveling energetically from capital to capital meeting Arab and Western leaders but without notable results so far.
Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yassir Arafat is pursuing his own diplomatic initiative to link an Iraqi withdrawal to an Israel withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank.
Some members of the Arab League met in Cairo late last week and tried to pull together a proposal that asked Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, to be replaced with a multinational Arab peace-keeping force. The deal might offer Iraq some oil royalties or similar incentive. It also might include the withdrawal of US troops from the region.
But it is not clear if the deal would appeal to Saddam, who continued to raise the stakes last week by declaring Kuwait a province of Iraq. Nor is it clear that the US would accept the deal, since even if it met Bush's stated goals, it would leave the Iraqi threat to the region intact.
The larger question for Americans, according to American University professor of international relations Leon Hadar: ``Is the US willing to commit itself politically, diplomatically, militarily to the Middle East the way it committed itself to Europe after World War II?''
The burden of containing war in the region could be even greater than it was in Europe, he says: ``In the Middle East, you have explosion after explosion.''
Such a massive, permanent commitment is unlikely, notes Dr. Hadar and others, because Europe has cultural bonds with the US and faced a global threat in the cold-war Soviet Union - both in contrast to the Middle East.
Besides, says Yahya Sadowski of the Brookings Institution, ``I don't think there's any Arab country that could sustain that [kind of American presence].''
Yet the US will not leave this crisis behind easily.
``Even victories have other consequences,'' Mr. Cordesman notes. Unless the Iraqi military is incapacitated, he says, ``we are going to find ourselves keeping forces in the Gulf for some time.''
Bush has been working the telephone hard over the weekend to lobby foreign leaders to help share the $1 billion-dollar-a-month cost of the military buildup. Both Secretary of State James Baker III and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady will visit allies this week to seek support for Bush's budren-sharing proposal.
The greatest danger of triggering war, says Cordesman, comes from so many hostages scattered around Iraq. If anyone in Iraq begins harming them, he says, ``I'm not sure they realize how quickly they could thrust the world into war.''
Peaceful means are still possible, Dr. Sadowski says. ``Despite all the Rubicons people say we've crossed, we haven't actually crossed the big one yet. Bush has done a good job of keeping our options open.''