I believe President Bush is doing what has to be done in the Persian Gulf and is doing it very well. That was clearly the majority view of the nation immediately after Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait, but since then there has been disarray and confusion.
In sending James Baker to Baghdad and inviting Iraq's foreign minister to Washington, Bush has struck the right note. It is well that he warned Saddam not to misread our motives.
The trip must not be viewed as involving standard negotiations in which both sides give a little to achieve an agreement. The only peace acceptable is a peace under which Saddam gives up what he has stolen, makes reparations for his theft and is left without the ability to steal again.
Before Bush's announcement we had encountered increasing opposition and questions, claims that our goals are not clear, contentions that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are not worthy of being defended, and cries for a negotiated peace. There have even been demonstrations by a few moth-eaten relics of the Vietnam peace movement, which despite their small size have been given undue prominence on TV news.
There are Americans who not only support our being in the gulf but want us to attack immediately. There are still others who think the embargo will not work but content themselves with saying that and with professing "profound pessimism" or some equally helpful analysis.
There really is, and should be, no confusion about why Bush sent the troops to the gulf. We are there to prevent a particularly brutal aggression that, if successful, would have badly crippled a large part of the world and left us subject to continual blackmail by one of the world's most miserable leaders. Bush's Thanksgiving speech to our troops in Saudi Arabia made that crystal clear.
That we have not always acted with such dispatch and effectiveness every time some aggression has occurred is beside the point and hardly an argument for not trying to establish the rule of law globally now.
To say we are in the gulf only because of oil is to trivialize the great role we are playing. Of course oil is important to our civilization -- just how important we'd easily know if Saddam had been allowed to carry out his plan to march through Saudi Arabia and take the United Arab Emirates, thereby securing control of at least 70 percent of the world's known oil reserves.
The troops know why they are in the gulf even if many opponents profess to be "unclear" and "puzzled." The troops appreciate that aggressors cannot be allowed to keep what they steal.
By protecting the world from continual blackmail and relieving it of the incalculable cost of clawing Saddam out of Saudi Arabia and the emirates, we achieve complementary goals: preventing aggression from succeeding and from undermining the quality of life Americans and millions of others enjoy.
As for the specious argument that we should not oppose Iraqi aggression because Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are not as pure as some would like, let's remember when we heard a similar argument: "We should not support the Shah of Iran because his government has done repressive things." But that overlooked the alternative: the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
So, are we going to let Hussein keep Kuwait because Kuwait is not everything its critics want?
What is this negotiated peace so many want? Some advocates tip their hands when they talk of Iraq's "historical claims" to Kuwait. But no one can contend that Kuwait invaded Iraq.
If some country's claims on another justify a brutal invasion, freedom and the rule of law are dead. What kind of negotiated settlement can we reach with a mass murderer who suppressed Iraqi Kurds seeking some small measure of freedom? What would be the terms of such a compromise or negotiations?
Would we let him keep half of Kuwait? Or "to save Saddam's face," which seems to be the goal of some who talk compromise, would we let him retire gracefully from Kuwait, welcome his generosity, express gratitude for the return of hostages -- and watch him repeat the whole murderous scenario when he chooses?
None of this is to say that we should commit our forces to combat now. I believe the economic sanctions, enforced by a tight air-and-sea blockade and supported by some 21 other countries, including every major Arab country, are succeeding. It will bring Iraq to its knees if we and our allies have the patience to keep it tightly in place and the willingness to wait until its full effect is felt.
Of course, we must keep our own military strength, joined by more than 130,000 allied troops, in place and ready to be used if necessary. The objections to Bush's recent strengthening of our force make little sense: If we are in the gulf because we have to be, every military consideration dictates we should be there with overwhelming power.
I do object, however, to the policy of no rotation for our troops. It would help morale if they were rotated home after some months' service in the harsh desert. This could be done without any loss in strength and without sending any signal to Saddam other than we have the best interests of our troops in mind.
I hope this great opportunity to enforce the rule of law globally is not watered down, compromised and weakened. We must preserve the military option. But let us see if patience and strength will give us victory without committing troops to combat.
CASPAR W. WEINBERGER was Ronald Reagan's secretary of defense.