IN Washington, the talk is no longer of Persian Gulf ``options,'' but of war. A sober mood has settled over the capital as the Bush administration noticeably toughens its rhetoric. The new White House line seems at least partly designed to prepare the American people for the reality of combat, with all its destruction and casualties. Gradually, the implications of ``preemptive strike'' are becoming all too clear.
No indicators point to imminent hostilities. Conversely, no change in Iraq's behavior seems forthcoming, and President Bush has redoubled his efforts to convince Saddam Hussein that unless he backs off there will be fighting.
The beleaguered US Embassy in Kuwait has long been considered a potential flashpoint, and on Wednesday Bush told reporters to ``just wait and see'' what the White House would do about the trapped diplomats. But in recent days administration officials have been at pains to emphasize they are not looking for an excuse to attack - because the invasion of Kuwait was provocation enough.
``You don't need any pretext. You just do what's right,'' Bush said.
Iraq's ambassador to the US Wednesday urged a negotiated settlement, saying Baghdad wanted to avoid bloodshed. But Iraqi Information Minister Latif Nassif Jassim told a Baghdad news conference there were signs the US is about to make a decision concerning war and that the Army and Popular Army had been put on maximum alert.
Administration officials aren't predicting armed confrontation. Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker both minced fewer words this week, however, in what seemed a coordinated campaign to change the tone of the US approach to the crisis. (Britain says war is likely, Page 3.)
The word ``war,'' kept at arms length before, cropped up in a speech delivered Monday in California by Mr. Baker, who charged that was where Saddam Hussein was leading the Middle East. Bush told congressional leaders his patience with Saddam was wearing thin, while in turn lawmakers urged him to go slow and work closely with US allies. The barbarous conditions of Western hostages in Iraq were brought up repeatedly by Bush and Baker.
``We may be at a turning point. At some point, the president had to begin to talk about war,'' says Thomas McNaugher, a Brookings Institution foreign relations fellow.
While the US public has supported the Gulf operation so far, it remains uncertain about the actual use of force, Mr. McNaugher says. The administration, if it sees war as likely or even possible, must thus at some point begin preparing American citizens to guard against a Vietnam-like loss of voter confidence.
Some Democrats have quietly grumbled that with the elections only days away the administration may be turning up foreign policy rhetoric so that voters will forget Bush's bumbling role in the budget crisis. It's a charge White House officials heatedly deny. Says one senior administration security official: ``I have never heard people say we have to do XYZ in the Gulf for domestic policy reasons.''
Saddam himself is also likely an intended target for the White House's new tougher words. In recent weeks much emphasis has been placed on keeping the UN-sanctioned anti-Saddam coalition together in the face of such events as the Palestinian deaths on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. Iraq may have begun to believe that the coalition is too unwieldy to ever agree on a use of force.
``What the president is doing now is ratcheting up the rhetoric and painting himself into a corner. That's precisely what he needs to do for Saddam Hussein to believe he has the resolve to use force,'' says Raymond Tanter, a National Security Council senior staffer in the early '80s who is now a political science professor at the University of Michigan.
In other words, Bush has to make Saddam Hussein believe that he believes war is inevitable. Otherwise the Iraqi leader may cling to the hope that America is soft and has no stomach for the casualties of war.
The Pentagon's continued insistence that the Gulf troop deployment is not yet over, with the possibility that 100,000 more troops might yet be sent, is another way of sending this message of resolve. After all, it is the threat of defeat, and not economic sanctions, that is potentially the most powerful US diplomatic weapon.
US officials admit economic sanctions have not yet worked as they had hoped. Gasoline in Iraq was rationed only briefly, and food seems plentiful on Baghdad streets. But the US plan is not to starve out the Iraqis, and State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler claimed Wednesday ``we are beginning to see some signs of real shortages.''
Ninety-seven percent of Iraqi oil exports have been cut off, according to the State Department, along with 90 percent of imports of industrial goods, raw materials, and machinery. The Iraqis are experiencing production difficulties at refineries and other industrial sites, the US claims.
Some analysts doubt sanctions will be effective for some time. ``Iraq has good prospects of surviving sanctions through the end of 1991,'' says Patrick Clawson, Washington Institute for Near East Policy expert.
Iraq's looting of Kuwait doubled its national stock of consumer durables, Mr. Clawson estimates. Moreover, smuggling will be able to bring in enough crucial mechanical spare parts to keep some industry running.