TWO things are certain in the case of the two Americans held in Iraq. First, detaining them with the added injury of long prison sentences is outrageous and meant to provoke. Second, there is little the United States can do for them on its own.
Talk of quick, decisive diplomatic or military action is just talk, part of preelection politics. It could, at worst, lead a shaky administration into some ill-considered and self-defeating reaction just to prove it was ''doing something.'' On the military side, what are the options? An expedition is out of the question. A rescue mission would be the wildest gamble, a stab in the dark.
A punitive airstrike is feasible. There have been several attacks on Iraqi antiaircraft sites. In June 1993, the US launched missiles at Iraq's intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in retaliation for an Iraqi plot to assassinate former President Bush on a visit to Kuwait. There was little or no protest from other nations who saw it as an acceptable response to a criminal conspiracy.
But today's circumstances are markedly different. The two Americans captured March 13, William Barloon and David Daliberti, would almost certainly be the first victims of any raid.
Also, President Saddam Hussein has the pretense of legality on his side. The two prisoners entered Iraq illegally. Unilateral US violence would not be well received by the world community, especially in the likely event of its failure.
Impotent rage is not becoming in a superpower. It is time the American public and its leaders realized that brute strength is not an instrument to untangle diplomatic dilemmas. The US is influential not as the 800-pound gorilla who can sit where it pleases but as a leader of coalitions pursuing common interests guided by fundamental principles. This has been its historic success in this century -- in World War II, in the Marshall Plan, and in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Having friends is essential but not enough. Washington asked France and Russia to persuade Saddam to release the two Americans. Both have a presence in Baghdad. Both are sympathetic to Iraq's demand that severe United Nations economic sanctions be at least relaxed. They honored the US request. But they have no influence with Saddam, either. Both are among the many nations eager to do business with him when the sanctions are ended. With absolute power in his country and enormous oil wealth, Saddam has the upper hand.
Turkey is a NATO ally whose cooperation is essential if the US and Britain are to continue supporting Kurdish autonomy within Iraq. Deprived of sizable revenues when Iraq's trans-Turkey oil pipeline was shut down, the Turks want it reopened as soon as possible. Meanwhile, they violate the sanctions by trading with Iraq across their border. Syria, Iraq's western neighbor, has feuded with Baghdad for a long time and couldn't help the US even if it wanted to. Jordan's King Hussein has had good relations with Iraq but needs Iraqi oil and money. It has no influence. Iran is the largest blockade breaker. It has no relations with the US and is the object, together with Iraq, of an odd American policy called ''dual containment'': political isolation and an economic embargo.
For all this, it would be wrong to think of the US as friendless. No one wants the US humiliated or diminished. But coalitions are not automatic or sentimental. Nor are they hastily assembled except in overriding emergencies. They must be nurtured over time.
That is not done when the US shows contempt for multilateral procedures in or outside the UN, uses them capriciously for specific advantage, or turns inward altogether.