THE United States Congress has sided, though by a widely split vote, with President Bush's policy in the Gulf. The Secretary General of the United Nations has laid out for Saddam Hussein a possible way out, but the Iraqi leader remains adamant. Tonight marks a deadline after which force can be used to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Is war inevitable?

It need not be.

Congressional authorization of the use of force against Iraq should be seen as a further warning to Saddam. It showed that even Americans of divergent views believe that Iraq's aggression must be reversed and that, if war comes, America's legislators will unite behind its soldiers.

It also showed a gap between those who feel military pressure alone can accomplish the goals of US policy and those who favor other options. Impassioned pleas were made in Congress against recourse to war. Those pleas resound with millions of Americans who gravely doubt that the ends justify warlike means.

No bombs should drop before the possible consequences of war are again reviewed. The loss of life - combatant and civilian - could be horrendous. What's shaping up is the most destructive unleashing of modern weaponry ever witnessed. Political shock waves could make the attainment of lasting peace in the Mideast more difficult than ever as extremist forces are inflamed and the US role as mediator is reduced to ashes. If Israel is drawn into battle such outcomes will be doubly hard to avoid.

The economic impacts of war would extend to the immediate region, to Eastern Europe's struggling new democracies hit by rising oil prices, and, of course, to the recession-struck US. Urgent domestic priorities in the US will be pushed further down the list.

What's involved is not a clash of two nations, certainly not a clash of strong-willed leaders, but the international community's effort to stand firm against aggression. Sanctions are a firm stand. Negotiation can be applied at any time, including after today's deadline. The decision of war or peace is not solely in the hands of one man, Saddam Hussein.

Force, if used, could set its own kind of bad precedent for a world struggling toward a new order.

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