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"Undertaking to explain our foreign policy in terms of our public opinion to explain one mystery in terms of another." - Walter Lippmann, 1952.

WASHINGTON - The Geneva meeting has failed. The diplomatic choreography is done. Unless Saddam Hussein blinks, the United States is headed for war. On this issue, George Bush has long crossed his Rubicon.History will judge if he is right, but in the interim, he is subject to constant criticism in the media and in Congress for taking his country to war without listening closely enough to the voice of the American people. What this means is that he is not closely enough following the polls.

This is a curious criticism, coming from those who for the first 18 months of the Bush presidency ridiculed its slavish finger-in-the-wind adherence to polls. Now comes an issue of critical national interest, an issue that could utterly destroy his presidency, and Bush presumes to step out ahead of the public.

Normally, that would be called leadership. Critics have other names for it now, none of them complimentary.

Not only is the charge unfair. The facts are wrong. The degree to which administration gulf policy is at odds with American opinion is highly exaggerated and has been for months. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll, for example, shows that Americans approve of Bush's handling of the gulf crisis by a 2-to-1 majority.

For weeks, however, conventional wisdom held that there had been dramatic erosion of public support. Yet even the polls a month or two ago did not bear that out. On Aug. 20, the Post-ABC poll found that 75 percent of Americans supported Bush's handling of the gulf crisis. On Nov. 15, the number had dropped to 59 percent. What went largely unnoticed was that almost half of those who disapproved of the president's policy disapproved because he was moving too slowly.

Add those who approved of the president's hard line to those who wanted a harder line and you get about 75 percent. Precisely where we were back on Aug. 20.

Historically speaking, the degree of public support for the use of force in the gulf is unusually high. Everett Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, observed last month that he "could find no other instance in the 45 years since World War II when so large a proportion of the American public endorsed committing U.S. troops prior to their actual engagement."

It is quite true that even those Americans who believe that the use of force may be necessary are apprehensive and ambivalent about the prospect. The polls reveal myriad contradictory sentiments: A solid 63 percent majority is prepared to go to war, but if the pollster starts mentioning casualties or offers a painless alternative, like sanctions, significant numbers begin preferring alternatives.

This ambivalence about war is not merely natural, (How can one not be ambivalent about a course of action that may be necessary but that may lead to the death of many Americans?) it is remarkably consistent with American history.

Consider the last "good war." Six months before Pearl Harbor, 79 percent of Americans opposed entering World War II. Yet 76 percent supported helping Britain, then desperately fighting the Battle of the Atlantic, even at the risk of war. Then again, only 55 percent supported giving Britain the kind of help that Churchill urgently needed but that might very well have dragged the United States into war with Germany: armed naval escorts. But then yet again, 73 percent favored doing so if the alternative was a British defeat.

This is ambivalence cubed. As late as October 1941, 74 percent of Americans opposed declaring war on Germany, but 70 percent said yes when asked whether it was more important to defeat Hitler than to stay out of the war.

The polls today, like the polls of 50 years ago, show that when it comes to war, Americans want what every rational person wants: the impossible. Stay out of war - and achieve our vital objectives. The only problem is that these goals may be mutually exclusive. It is then, when their incompatibility becomes undeniable, that public ambivalence becomes manifest.

It is then that political leadership becomes manifest, too. On war in the gulf, public opinion is torn. It issues no mandate either for war or for peace. In this condition of anguish and ambivalence, when no easy political road map is at hand, the courage to choose is the mark of leadership.

The president has shown it. Congress, which has yet to, now has its turn.