By now, the world should have learned not to trust the word of the man who promised not to invade Kuwait, then promptly did so.

Even so, there's still ample reason for cheering this week's promise by Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein to release all foreign hostages in time for the holidays instead of some three months later as previously pledged.Following on the heels of Saddam's earlier decision to release 3,300 Soviet oil workers in Iraq, his call for the release of 2,000 Western and Japanese hostages is a logical next step.

It's no accident that the promise to release all hostages came only hours after the United States offered to back a move by the U.N. Security Council to convene an international conference on the Middle East in an effort to pave the way for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Ten days after his troops and tanks stormed into Kuwait, Saddam insisted that the Arab-Israeli conflict be linked to an overall Middle East settlement. Washington insisted it would not negotiate with the Iraqi president on subjects unrelated to the seizure of Kuwait.

Did the U.S. execute a flip-flop in offering to back an international conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict? If Saddam and others prefer to see it that way, let them. An international talk-fest need not necessarily be the same thing as negotiations involving concrete proposals. Even if such proposals materialize from the proposed conference, Washington has to take into consideration the desires of its Arab allies in dealing with the Persian Gulf crisis created by Iraq.

In any event, the United States is not about to abandon Israel. Support for Israel must remain a key part of American foreign policy.

All things considered, then, Saddam's new promise to release all hostages must be considered a victory for President Bush's much-criticized mixture of toughness and diplomacy in dealing with Iraq.

Why else would Saddam make this major concession?

Because he is a badly understood man who is no threat to international stability and prosperity but is really a benevolent champion of peace? Get serious!

Because economic sanctions brought Iraq to its knees in only four months even though they haven't worked elsewhere except as an irritating inconvenience and a symbol of international displeasure? Dream on!

Instead, it's easier to explain Saddam's concessions on the basis of the stark realities confronting him - 1) the hostility of nearly the entire world, 2) an allied military force of nearly half a million, and 3) the inability of Iraq to get replacement parts for its military machinery once it wears out or is destroyed.

But even after all the hostages are released, the U.S.-led alliance will still face some major challenges in dealing with Iraq. Besides prying Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait, it will be necessary to leave some kind of deterrent force in place for years to come. As difficult as all that is going to be, it won't be nearly as tough as trying to keep Iraq from acquiring sophisticated military equipment, including nuclear weapons.

The genie is out of the bottle. Who is prepared to say when, if ever, he will be put back?