President Bush's decision not to send victorious coalition armies on to Baghdad to topple Saddam Hussein represents one of the most important and calculated decisions of the gulf war. It is, in effect, the first step in the larger business of building a structure of peace for the troubled Middle East.
Had U.S.-led forces continued the slaughter of Iraqi troops and pursued the war into a city often described as the Athens and Rome of Islam, they would have needlessly fed the Muslim sense of grievance against the West. Instead, the president's wiser policy is to put on the pressure for the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator from within.
Triumph on the battlefield gives the United States enormous leverage. Iraqis either "can take matters in their own hands" by overthrowing Saddam, as Mr. Bush urged a fortnight ago, or they will face a future in which economic sanctions will be prolonged, reparations exacted, oil exports blocked and defeat made more and more unbearable.
The peace process may take some time. It may be accompanied by ludicrous propaganda from Baghdad. But if the president's strategy is correct, the magnitude of what Saddam's bloody-mindedness has cost Iraq will become so undeniable that the present military regime could crumble.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers have been killed. The nation's economy is wrecked. Many cities are without power and water. The everyday commerce of living is at a crawl. Iraq's future, as a result, will either be a painful rebuilding process without Mr. Hussein or an intolerable march of misery to nowhere if he remains.
How the United States and other coalition partners proceed now that fighting is suspended will mightily affect the shape of the postwar Middle East. The president's goal should be to withdraw all American land forces from the region -- as he has frequently vowed -- once it is established beyond question that Iraq's war-making capacity is a thing of the past. The Navy will stay.
With Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states feeling secure, American ground units can be replaced by a United Nations peacekeeping force drawn primarily from Islamic countries. Demilitarized zones can be established all along Iraq's southern borders. Supplies for American aircraft can be prepositioned at Saudi airfields just in case the U.S. once again has to impose order in a region whose oil wealth affects the entire world economy. Meanwhile, the Arab-Israeli issue and other regional problems can be addressed.
For Americans, the most important message of the gulf war is that it was not another Vietnam. The U.S., as the only credible superpower, has shown the will and the means to enforce international law. Other nations will break the peace only at their peril. This is a power entrusted to the United States that should be used with utmost care, without hubris, in the renewed belief that democracy, freedom and individual rights are ideals worthy of much sacrifice and dedication.