In war as in chess, there comes a dramatic moment when you can feel the will of one of the adversaries cracking. We are near such a moment in the Persian Gulf crisis.

We are now hearing repeated references to the ``fragile coalition' assembled against Iraq. The reason it is fragile is that the self-interest and common sense of most of the members are being strained by their continued participation. Our Arab allies don't fancy aligning themselves against another Arab country when one of the beneficiaries of the alignment is Israel. And Syria has taken vexing advantage of the alliance to complete its dominance of Lebanon.Anti-war sentiment in the United States is growing - and this time it is not confined to the far left. The most patriotic Americans are wondering what American interest is being served by this desert adventure.

Congress is finally asserting its prerogative of deciding whether the United States shall enter a state of war. We are beginning to remember that the reason we call the president ``the chief executive' is that his job is essentially to execute the will of Congress, not to act on his own initiative, like a dictator.

One of the most remarkable signs of the times is that two of the earliest and most ardent war advocates, the columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer, are assenting to Congress' taking back its usurped function. This probably means that they have come to realize that if the president takes us into the war they have urged without obtaining congressional and popular support, they and their fellow hawks will bear much responsibility for the likely carnage. At least this way their responsibility will be shifted to Congress.

Mr. Will is the president's bitterest critic, yet the president's two worst decisions - raising taxes and making war - followed the prescriptions of Mr. Will, the big-government conservative. Mr. Will has been tiptoeing away from both positions.

Meanwhile, the Brutal Dictator himself - Saddam Hussein - has announced that he will start releasing his western hostages on Christmas Day, unless of course Mr. Bush launches a war first. Nice move. If the Brutal Dictator really is the ``madman' Mr. Bush calls him, how come he keeps outsmarting Mr. Bush?

The hostage ploy came shortly after the president had cited hostage abuse as yet another casus belli. It let most of the remaining helium out of the war balloon. And instead of applauding it as a big improvement over torturing people, the White House condemned it as ``cynical manipulation.'

A Martian might be pardoned for thinking that of the two leaders, Saddam Hussein shows the firmer grip on reality. There is nothing strikingly lunatic about wanting to own Kuwait, if you are in a position to pluck it. Wicked and greedy, maybe, but not insane. Saddam Hussein in fact has shown one huge advantage in his duel with George Bush: He knows what he's doing.

Actually, Saddam has shown his competence in his avocation over a long time. He rose to power against heavy odds, without having a family fortune, a senator for a father or Ronald Reagan's coattails to carry him to the top. He has kept power through many coup attempts. He has induced hundreds of thousands of men to die for his territorial ambitions in Iran. And now he holds the aforementioned Kuwait. You could call him a lot of things, but crazy isn't one of them.

When he began licking his chops over Kuwait, he looked over at the United States, his backer during his long war on Iran. The United States had sent troops into Panama, which is a lot farther from Texas than Kuwait is from Iraq, on grounds that it was in ``our back yard.' Then he picked up a clear diplomatic signal that we weren't terribly concerned about border disputes in his region - his back yard, as it were.

When Saddam took the obvious next step, he was met with one of those periodic torrents of indignation that have made this country great. It must have struck him as hypocritical, but he is not a man to brood over life's little injustices. He sized up the situation and decided to wait us out.

Now he has struck - not with a military assault, but with a beautifully timed hostage release, just as Mr. Bush was making his holiday foray to the desert. Saddam Hussein's ethics aren't all they might be, but his mental health seems pretty good.

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