As they move into the third month of their shared response to Saddam Hussein's aggression, the governments of the United States, most Middle Eastern countries and most members of the United Nations Security Council deserve applause.

Together they have established a winning position.Unless they become divided in ways that none can desire, the Iraqi aggression, sooner or later, will fail.

Oddly, the principal threat to this prospect is that one or more members of this extraordinary coalition may not appreciate the strength of their present position and so may lose patience.

Because the Americans are the linchpin of the coalition, it is America's patience that matters most, and it is among Americans that there are voices calling for a move from blockade to "decisive" combat.

These voices are wrong in three ways.

First, if the United States takes the lead in escalation, it will put heavy strains on the unity and steadiness of the coalition it has done so much to bring together and will gravely threaten the blockade constructed under our leadership.

Second, there is no need for escalation because the blockade itself, over time, is a winner. There can be no durable success for Saddam while the blockade remains in force; his strength is bound to decline month by month as it continues.

Already he is weaker than he was and his behavior shows he knows it: His threats get thinner and his search for a political escape more frantic.

Because it is necessarily slow the blockade can easily be underestimated.

Iraq is unusually vulnerable to blockade. Large-scale imports and exports are vital; they are readily blocked; the necessary participants in this process are few, and all of them are deeply interested in success.

We can't be sure a cornered Saddam will never strike out, but it is reasonable to expect that the allies will be able to turn any such act into a clear defeat for him.

A third error is the assumption that because it was wrong in Vietnam it is wrong now to use force in a limited way.

This assumption is entirely understandable to me because I know first hand what we tried to do in Vietnam and how it ended in disaster. It was a disaster not because we did too little but because we tried to do too much.

We tried to do with our own forces what in the end could be done only by the Vietnamese. Tragically, there was a persistent and eventually fatal imbalance of effectiveness between the Vietnamese communists and their opponents.

It makes no sense to let an honorable but deeply mistaken view of the American tragedy in Vietnam be misapplied in the different situation of Iraq and Kuwait.

This time, as a result of quick and excellent work by our own leaders, we and our friends are doing enough to prevail - a position we never reached in Vietnam - and we need not do more unless Saddammakes war.

A blockade has daily costs, but even a year of blockade will be cheaper for both sides than even a week of war.

It is true that blockade will not by itself do more than bring independence back to Kuwait. It cannot settle the political future of that country or ensure a stable peace between Iraq and its neighbors.

As President Bush made clear at the United Nations, there will be much to work out after the Iraqis leave Kuwait. In particular, there are other dangers in the Saddam's Iraq - notably a deep preoccupation with acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

But these are not matters to be settled by warfare, at least not by warfare of American choice.

We shall do better on these larger problems if we keep to what Bush has described: a course that does only what we must to restore Kuwait's independence. Once that goal is attained there will be a new balance of power in the region that will help in larger matters - as an open war begun by the Americans will not.