THOUGH criticized for his initially tepid response to the overthrow of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, President Bush is getting generally high marks for his handling of the crisis.His options are limited, as is his - or any other foreign leader's - ability to affect the situation. But in classic Bush manner, the president has in short order helped to forge a multinational consensus denouncing the actions of the coup plotters and halting foreign economic aid to the Soviets. As he did a year ago when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Mr. Bush immediately took to the international phone lines and consulted with the leaders of most European nations, East and West, plus Japan and Canada. The point, though, is not that moral suasion will cause the Soviet Union's ruling junta to see the error of its ways and return power to President Gorbachev. "The basic idea," says a senior administration official, is to encourage those figures outside the bureaucracy" such as the democratic leaders, mid-le vel Army officers, and the man on the street, "that it's worth it to keep resisting." Bush could not overtly call on the Russian people to resist the coup, because he is not prepared to back up such a call with military force, says the official. Such a direct appeal could backfire, he says, because it would allow the coup leaders to appeal to Russian nationalism and claim that the West is trying to divide the country. Bush also spoke on the phone directly with Boris Yeltsin on Tuesday, as did British Prime Minister John Major. Both conveyed directly to the Russian Republic's president the West's support for his pivotal role as the leader of the opposition. Some observers question Bush's decision to send the new United States ambassador to the Soviet Union, Robert Strauss, to Moscow for a brief trip to get the lay of the land. Though Mr. Strauss will not be presenting his credentials while there, "the visit does still carry the danger that it shows some level of recognition to the coup plotters," says a congressional expert on the Soviet Union. "If anything, ambassadors are being recalled in situations like this, not sent in." But Joshua Muravchik, a Soviet specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, suggests that Strauss could "do the right thing," such as meet with Yeltsin and express US support for him. Strauss could even present his credentials to the Russian leader. "If the coup succeeds, the new government would be angry, but so what?" says Mr. Muravchik. The Soviet coup has also brought suggestions that the US should become more assertive in its recognition of the three Baltic republics as separate nations. The ruling Soviet junta has placed the Baltics, which had moved the furthest toward actual independence of any Soviet republics, under the rule of the Baltic military commander. But for now, Bush is holding onto that card for possible use later - and hedging his bets that the coup attempt might be defeated. "As you all know," he said at the Tuesday press conference, "we have not ever recognized the forceable incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union, and that's where that matter is right now. But we are not giving up on the restoration of constitutional government in the Soviet Union itself, and so we'll leave that matter right there." Also, conservatives anxious about the stability of the newly democratizing Eastern European nations are suggesting it might be wise to expedite their incorporation into Western economic and security alliances. But other analysts question that assertion. "Certainly we shouldn't let them join NATO, which the Soviets would perceive as a threat," says Brookings Institution scholar Raymond Garthoff. "We have given them assurances that we would not put their security to a disadvantage, and we should show good faith." Further, Mr. Garthoff points out, the West is moving to incorporate the former Soviet satellite nations in other ways, such as having their military officers come to the West for training and including Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the Atlantic Assembly, a parliamentary spinoff of NATO. One organization that already incorporates most of the countries of Europe, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), was scheduled to convene a human-rights conference in Moscow next month, but that is now in doubt. In Washington, the Helsinki Commission, which monitors implementation of the CSCE Final Act, or Helsinki accords, called on Bush to activate the CSCE's mechanism for an emergency meeting of senior officials to discuss the coup. "This would force them [the coup plotters] to make a public accounting of what's going on," says David Evans, senior administrator of the commission. "I admit there are limits to what it could accomplish, but it's a forum that should be used." European heads of state will be gathering this Friday in The Hague to discuss the coup, and there have been unconfirmed reports that out of that meeting may emerge a delegation that would go to Moscow to investigate the situation firsthand. Since the coup attempt was launched Monday, there has been some soul-searching in the US and Europe over whether relations with the Soviet Union had been overly personalized to the ultimate detriment of Gorbachev. Pundits are asking: Did Gorbachev's image as the darling of the West contribute to his downfall? In one sense, probably not. The evident xenophobia of the junta is such that even if the West had typically shown only lukewarm support for Gorbachev, the conservative anti-Western group that deposed the Soviet president probably would have seen him as captive to Western interests no matter what.