While the historic action Thursday afternoon by the U.N. Security Council authorizing military action against Iraq if it doesn't release all hostages and withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15 was not unexpected, it is chilling nonetheless.

Until now, U.N. sanctions against Iraq have been open-ended, with no definite deadline. In one stroke, the Security Council altered the Persian Gulf crisis from what had been a waiting game into possible war in the very near future - an ominous development.The vote marks the first time since the Korean War began in 1950 that the United Nations has authorized the use of force against another nation. The United States is closer to real war than any time since Vietnam. The possible consequences are incalculable since any fighting would take place in the heart of the world's biggest and most crucial oil-producing area.

The U.N. resolution passed by a lopsided 12-2, with China abstaining. Only Yemen and Cuba, two of the 10 rotating or temporary members of the Security Council, voted against. Only the five permanent members of the Security Council - the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, Canada and China - have veto power. China's abstention eliminated that veto possibility.

However, adoption of the Jan. 15 deadline doesn't mean an attack will be automatically launched then. In fact, U.S. military officials say American forces won't be ready for offensive operations until Feb. 1. But the Jan. 15 deadline does mean the U.S.-led alliance could strike any time after that date.

Sponsors of the resolution depicted it as a final attempt to convince Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein of the seriousness of his situation. Whether and when the trigger actually would be pulled will depend on diplomatic maneuvering. It also could depend on the outcome of a growing American debate that could result in Congress being called into special session.

A military response also could be triggered by any aggressive move by Iraq or the harming of hostages held by Iraq as human shields.

Clearly, this increases the pressure on Iraq. And despite the U.N. Security Council vote, it also deepens the strains among U.S. allies in the Middle East, particularly the Arab states that don't like Saddam but don't want war against him, either.

Even those nations that feared the Persian Gulf crisis could not be resolved without eventual fighting have indicated they are willing to wait a little longer - perhaps into spring - so that sanctions might have a chance to put more pressure on Iraq.

Canada's External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, on a tour of the Middle East, says the "common theme" among 25 nations enforcing the embargo of Iraq is that they do not want war and they hope that the threat of force will suffice. In contrast, U.S. officials say there is a "common feeling" among the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq that the Persian Gulf crisis must be brought to an end.

Obviously, there are differing perspectives on what the allies regard as their "common" views.

The Soviets, who had preached restraint and giving sanctions time to work, apparently grew impatient with the slow release of 4,000 citizens still held by Iraq.

The January deadline may have more to do with the changing nature of the U.N. Security Council than with haste to get at Iraq. The government of Yemen, which voted against the resolution, as expected, is due to take over chairmanship of the Security Council Dec. 1. Yemen officials said earlier they would do all in their power to prevent a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.

But with such an authorization now in hand, the United States and its allies can afford to take more time. In any case, voting for the U.N. resolution and getting agreement for offensive action are very different things for the allies.

In addition, there appears to be a growing consensus in the United States that it would be better to wait longer before resorting to military action. Sanctions are hurting Iraq.

If it has to come to a fight - where everyone will be losers to some degree - later will be just as good as sooner and might even be better. Iraq's position is not going to improve with time.

And the political question of committing U.S. troops to action without approval by Congress hasn't been settled, either.

Though the U.N. deadline may be defensible, let's not fall victim to impatience. Why not wait at least several more months? Don't allow the existence of the Jan. 15 deadline to stampede the U.S. and its allies into hasty military moves.