THE inconclusive ending of six-hour talks between Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz doesn't mean an end to efforts to resolve the Gulf crisis peacefully. Mr. Baker held open the possibility that United Nations Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, who is traveling to Baghdad, could play a useful role. President Bush said he still hopes for a peaceful resolution.
On the other side, Mr. Aziz acknowledged the civil tone of Wednesday's meeting. The Iraqi diplomat made use of an international forum, broadcast worldwide, to lay out his government's position. Some analysts suggest Iraq may have seized on Geneva as an opportunity to meet on equal terms with the United States, and that diplomacy could now move into a more productive stage, with initiatives from the UN, the Europeans, and Arabs.
We hope so. It ought to be clear by now to Saddam Hussein that the international coalition opposing him is unlikely to splinter soon. It should also be clear that he can't count on dissension within the US Congress blocking military action. Mr. Bush and his secretary of state will be reinforcing the coalition in coming days. They'll be seeking to firm up support for the use of force - which need not come on the heels of next Tuesday's deadline. They should also keep an ear tuned to diplomatic openings.
This must be a time of acute listening on many levels. Aziz's words in Geneva were remarkable for their avoidance of the central issue - the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Instead, the foreign minister insisted on resolution of the stubborn conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Does that conflict deserve renewed attention? Of course. Should the US renew efforts to enliven the Arab-Israeli peace process? Yes. Should Washington agree now to launch a specific project - an international conference on Mideast peace - in order to coax Iraq out of Kuwait? No.
While the Bush administration's choice of military intimidation as the primary means of dealing with Iraq raises doubts, the principle that aggression must not be rewarded does not.
Positive things can follow Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait: There'll be no attack by the US or other forces; differences with Kuwait can be adjudicated; and regional issues such are arms limitation can be addressed. Does the Iraqi leader care? Does he care that he and his people stand on the brink of disaster?
The world listens for the hint of a positive answer.