JUST AS he seemed to be marching inexorably toward war in the Persian Gulf, President Bush has taken a crucial step to avoid war.
And there is reason to hope that it will work: that the gulf crisis can now be resolved without war.
Bush's decision to invite Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to the White House and send Secretary of State James Baker to Baghdad wasseen by some as a political stroke, designed by the president to disarm domestic critics of his policy.
In Senate hearings last week the critics had marshaled impressive opposition to any early use of military force in the gulf.
Now, it was said, Bush could say he had gone the last mile for peace -- and when diplomacy failed, more easily get Congress' support for war.
Domestic politics may have been a reason for the decision. But Bush could also have been responding to voices that have been urging him to try a diplomatic approach to Saddam Hussein -- among them, very likely, the voice of Mikhail Gorbachev.
The president had to have Soviet support for last week's United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force in the gulf.
Gorbachev may well have agreed, after arduous talks with Baker, on the understanding that after the U.N. vote Bush would try a diplomatic demarche.
Whatever the motive, the Aziz and Baker trips have a real potential of leading to a settlement.
How can that be, it will be asked, when Saddam Hussein keeps insisting that he will not give up Kuwait? And when President Bush says the purpose is not to negotiate but to make Iraq understand the world's determination?
The answer is that peaceful resolution of the crisis depends -- has always depended -- on giving Saddam Hussein a way to retreat. No such dictator can be expected to pull back unless he sees a way to save face, and save his own skin.
This diplomatic move is a face-saving device, even though Bush naturally denies that it is.
Saddam can say that Bush's friend and highest aide has had to come to him. The very trip by James Baker is a gesture toward Saddam: a reward, if you will.
There is a more concrete incentive for Saddam Hussein to use this diplomatic exchange as a way to climb down from his aggression: the assurance that if he withdraws from Kuwait and releases his hostages, as U.N. resolutions require, he will not be attacked.
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Baker as good as gave that assurance. Asked whether he would assure Saddam that the United States would not attack Iraq if he withdrew, Baker replied:
"There's never been any suggestion that force would be used if the United Nations resolutions were fully complied with."
Bush has expressed strong concern about Iraq's possible development of nuclear weapons. He seemed at times to be suggesting that one aim of his policy was the destruction of that nuclear capacity.
But Baker said the nuclear problem should be dealt with after resolution of the present crisis. It would fall under security arrangements to be worked out for the region.
Those answers by Baker must be one part of the message he is going to take to Baghdad.
The other part is the threat of military attack after Jan. 15. It is a more credible threat after Bush's demonstration of a desire to resolve the crisis diplomatically.
Saddam Hussein greeted the Bush proposal with angry words.
An Iraqi statement called Bush "the enemy of God" and said "the arrogant president of the United States George Bush had consistently opposed dialogue, expressing his hatred of Arabs and Moslems . . . ."
But he accepted the Bush offer. That is what matters. The rest is rhetoric, which can be useful as smoke to cover a retreat.
The importance of the Bush move was evident from the reaction of Middle East experts in Washington.
Judith Kipper of the Brookings Institution, who has been urging a diplomatic effort, called it "the most important thing that's happened since Aug. 2."
No one can be sure that a man with Saddam Hussein's ambitions will yield to the compulsions of reality. But he has done so before, and there is a real possibility that he will take the way out opened up by Bush's initiative.
American superhawks would not be satisfied. They would still want to send U.S. soldiers into battle to destroy Iraq's military capability.
George Bush and the rest of us would prefer a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to war.