President Bush deserves high marks for his new initiative Thursday for last-ditch talks aimed at averting war in the Persian Gulf.

The new offer for talks in Switzerland between Secretary of State Baker and the Iraqi foreign minister does more than just put the burden for averting further bloodshed squarely on Saddam Hussein.It also helps show the American public and certain nervous European allies that Washington is not focusing exclusively on military muscle but is making every reasonable diplomatic effort to find a peaceful way out of the crisis.

And it helps head off incipient efforts by some Europeans to undertake separate talks with Saddam even though separate talks would help Iraq by undercutting the new alliance between the West and the Arabs.

If this new initiative by Bush somehow persuades Iraq to leave Kuwait, Americans would rejoice. Though the latest polls show most of the American public supports the use of military force in the Persian Gulf if needed, the United States really does not want war.

Unhappily, however, Iraq seems intransigent. Consequently, as the United Nation's Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi to leave Kuwait approaches, let's keep a few points firmly in mind:

First, U.N. forces are in the Persian Gulf because Saddam has shown an insatiable appetite for power in a strategically vital part of the world. If unchecked, aggression tends to keep expanding. It could be easier to stop Saddam now than it would be later.

Second, if Iraq gets away with seizing, looting and annexing Kuwait, this unpunished international crime is bound to encourage other ambitious despots to encroach on their neighbors.

Third, if Iraq manages to ignore with impunity the U.N. mandate to leave Kuwait, any future warnings against aggression from either the world organization or Washington can be expected to be futile, too, and the power for peace will be greatly diminished.

By all means, let's keep talking or seeking talks up to and even after the Jan. 15 deadline. And let's keep applying international economic sanctions, though the track record of such efforts is anything but impressive. But, whichever way it is accomplished, ruthless aggression must be thwarted in Kuwait or its appetite can be expected to grow more voracious.