MOST talk of the Gulf crisis these days points to the logic of war. But even as the world edges toward the brink of conflict, a consensus is beginning to take shape on the rough outlines of a diplomatic alternative.
It offers this face-saving incentive for Iraq's Saddam Hussein: that withdrawal from Kuwait could set the stage for resolving disputes between those two nations plus other regional conflicts that have long threatened Middle East peace.
In an address before the UN General Assembly Oct. 1, President Bush said ``opportunities'' may arise for Iraq and Kuwait ``to settle their differences permanently,'' once Iraqi troops are out of Kuwait. Implied is the promise of international support for Iraq to have old grievances against Kuwait over territory and oil-production policy fairly adjudicated.
Mr. Bush was echoing a more-detailed proposal presented to the UN last week by French President Fran,cois Mitterrand, which also called for an international conference to resolve all major Middle East disputes.
The two appeals, similar in outline to various privately floated peace plans, create the first serious diplomatic opening since the Gulf crisis began, analysts say.
But analysts also warn that, as Iraq ransacks Kuwait and troop levels on both sides mount, the diplomatic option is threatened by strong undercurrents pulling toward war.
``The pressure is building on the administration to find a solution, whether it's war or peace,'' says William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a former assistant secretary of state.
Mr. Mitterrand's proposal is the most expansive so far for resolving the Gulf crisis peacefully.
In a speech at the UN Sept. 24, he suggested a conference that would link resolution of the Gulf conflict with the settlement of other pressing regional issues, including the Lebanese civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israeli security problems.
Nearly a week later, the Iraqi leader expressed interest in discussing the French plan further - and then announced the release of nine French hostages.
Western analysts see Saddam's response as a ploy to divide his worldwide opposition. He has not altered his own demand that all foreign troops leave Saudi Arabia before negotiations take place.
But both US and French officials respond that there is little daylight between the views advanced by Bush and Mitterrand. Both leaders insist on Iraqi withdrawal as the precondition to negotiations. Meanwhile, Bush hinted Oct. 1 for the first time that some loose linkage between the Gulf crisis and other Middle East problems might be acceptable to the US - but only in the aftermath of an Iraqi pullout.
Hopes for a nonmilitary solution are linked to the question of how soon and how effectively international economic sanctions against Iraq begin to bite, diplomatic analysts agree. Pressures for the war option have been heightened by the speed with which Saddam has subjugated Kuwait and by concern that with the passage of time the consensus against Iraq may begin to erode.
Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, recalls that in one recent White House meeting there was a sense of inevitability about war.
``Everything I've seen indicates the administration is looking more and more favorably on the war option,'' Mr. Aspin said at a Monitor breakfast last week.
All of which poses the dilemma for the US of how to talk tough enough to convince Saddam of US resolve - but not so tough that any diplomatic solution would appear to be a surrender.
EXPERTS point to at least two areas where the US can be flexible enough to give diplomacy a chance to work.
One concerns future political arrangements in a liberated Kuwait. Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Bush has cited the restoration of the Sabah monarchy as one of four US objectives in the region. But many critics say the issue of who should govern a liberated Kuwait should be left to the Kuwaitis themselves.
The US should also make it clear that if Iraq quits Kuwait, it will provide the opportunity for Saddam to air his grievances against Kuwait, some analysts say.
One sore point in particular has been Kuwait's decision to exceed OPEC production quotas. Although Kuwait has never released its production figures, estimates of overproduction range as high as half a million barrels per day. The effect has been to drive down prices, depriving Iraq of millions of dollars needed to fund ambitious development plans.
One possible solution: a US commitment to support a UN fact-finding mission to travel to Kuwait to investigate complaints about excessive drilling. Another would be to back the idea of submitting disputes between Iraq and Kuwait to the binding arbitration of the World Court.
Despite the renewed interest in finding a negotiated solution to the Gulf crisis, UN peacemaking efforts are currently on hold.
Following passage of several of the eight UN resolutions condemning Iraq and calling for sanctions, UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar met in Amman, Jordan with Iraqi foreign minister Tareq Aziz. But the UN sources say no future meetings with senior Iraqi officials will be contemplated without reasonable assurance that such talks will advance the diplomatic process.
``The secretary-general does not like to dive into empty swimming pools,'' says one ranking UN official. ``He does not want to make a trip unless he has some reason to think, not just hope, that something will be accomplished.''